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Demetrios Constantelos

The Historical Development of Greek Orthodoxy

From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Boston 1990.

The Ancient Church
  |  The Medieval Church  |  The Modern Church


THE GREEK Orthodox Church today comprises five administrative jurisdictions; the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem, and the Churches of Cyprus and Greece. All together, the Church counts a membership of approximately fifteen million people living in Greece proper, the Near East, Africa, North and South America, Western Europe, and Australia. (It has been estimated that there are more than 150 million Orthodox Christians in the world. In a recent article in the New York Times the estimate was placed in the area of 300 million). The Churches of Alexandria and Jerusalem include many thousands of Arabic-speaking Christians.

Greek and Greek-speaking Christians constituted the greater part of the early Church. With the diffusion Hellenism, as early as the fourth century before the Christian era, the Greeks had come to constitute a very important if not a dominant element in the Near East and North Africa, especially in the large and metropolitan cities. It was because of this Greek world expansion that the rise of Christianity as a world religion was made possible.

The Greek Orthodox Church of today claims that she is the Church founded by Jesus Christ himself; that the Church was guided by the Apostles, including Saint Paul, who visited many Greek cities, was strengthened by martyrs, saints, and the Church Fathers, and is maintained and propagated by her believers in the modern world.

The first contact of the Greeks with Christ is related by the author of the Fourth Gospel. He writes that some Greeks among those who used to visit Jerusalem at the Passover approached Philip and Andrew and asked to see Jesus (Jn. 12.20-24). The Greeks, as seekers after truth, were eager to listen to something novel, to meet the new master.

Since the dawn of history the Greeks have been inveterate wanderers in their search for the truth that sets man free. They have always been cosmopolitan and eager to attend one teacher after the other. Homer’s Odysseus and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odysseus represent the restless Greek who, whether for knowledge, wealth, or truth, visits many lands and attends many schools of thought and learning. What Thukydides write about the Athenians, describing them as a people that "could neither rest themselves nor permit other to rest," can be said of the Ancient Greeks.

Jesus was aware that the Greeks who came to Him were men with a searching mind and a troubled spirit. Upon His confrontation with them, He exclaimed, "The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified"(Jn. 12.23). Indeed, these Greeks were few in number, but Christ saw in them not only Greeks but Romans and Scythians and other peoples of all times and places who would also seek to find Him. Jesus said the hour had come for the Christian Gospel to be proclaimed outside the limited boundaries of ancient Israel. The Greeks have played a major role in the kerygma and the didache of Christ. The Greeks found in the person of Christ the eternal Logos and the "unknown God" of their forefathers, while Christ discovered in them sincere followers and dedicated apostles of the New Kingdom. It was through this historical meeting between the "unknown God" and the Greeks themselves that Christianity became an ecumenical religion. As T.R. Glover has put it: "The chief contribution of the Greek was his demand for this very thing – that Christianity must be universal…the Greek really secured the triumph of Jesus…. Even the faults of the Greek have indirectly served the church." Thus Christianity and Hellenism embraced each other in a harmonious faith and culture enriching each other. The Greek Orthodox Church of today is the people born out of the union between the icarnate Logos and Hellenism.


In the history of the Greek Orthodox Church four stages of development can be distinguished. The first three centuries, through the age of Constantine the Great constitute the apostolic and ancient period. The medieval period includes almost ten centuries, to the fall of Constantinople. The age of captivity starts, roughly, in the fifteenth century and ends about the year 1830. It is followed by the modern period.

Soon after its inception, Christianity was promulgated in the Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire. It was propagated through the medium of the Greek language; it was interpreted and clarified by the Fathers of Christianity, who were either Greek in origin or Hellenized and who spoke and wrote in Greek. Christian creeds and canons were written and codified in the Greek language by local and ecumenical synods as well. The New Testament books themselves and much of the important literature of the Christian religion of the first ten centuries were written in Greek. Greek philosophical thought and learning were utilized in defining Christian doctrines. Even Western Church Fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, who wrote in the Latin language, reveal the influence of Greek thought in their writings.

Following three centuries of underground existence and persecution in the Roman Empire, it was again the Greek Church, the Greek language, and Greek missionaries that carried the Christian message in both the East and the West. The Latin element emerged as a major factor in the history of Christianity only in the West and as late as the fifth century. It is significant that Saint Paul, writing to the Church of Rome, did not use Latin but Greek. The early Church in Rome was Greek-speaking, and the Church in the West was an extension of the Church in the East. The leading Roman Catholic theologian Tomas Spidlik, a member of the Society of Jesus, is quite right when he writes: "We must stress one principle and stress it hard, that the Latin Church originated from the Greek Church as a branch grows from a tree trunk. The Church was implanted by the Greeks and expressed itself in the Greek language until the end of the fourth century."

Christianity is Greek not only in form but to great degree in content as well. As we have seen, Greek religious and philosophical thought had penetrated into the mind and thought of later Judaism and Greek thought had thoroughly imbued the whole of the Roman Empire. The fusion of Greek classical and religious material was present not only in theological and philosophical writing but also in mystical and spiritual. Christian thinkers were in constant dialogue with ancient Greek thought and religious experience. Hellenization affected every aspect of early Christianity including worship.

For several centuries the worship of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire including the Latin speaking West was in Greek. Writing about the Roman Liturgy, C.E. Hammond, a renown liturgiologist of the last century adds: "it is, we believe, acknowledged on all sides [history, archeology, literature and criticism] that the language of the early Roman Church, i.e. of the first three centuries, was Greek." In full agreement he cites his contemporary ecclesiastical historian Henry Hart Milman who writes: "For some considerable (it cannot but be an undefinable) part of three first centuries, the Church of Rome, and most, if not all the Churches of the West, were, if we may so speak, Greek religious colonies. Their language was Greek, their organization Greek, their writers Greek, their scriptures Greek; and many vestiges and traditions show that their ritual, their Liturgy, was Greek."

The tremendous progress in various theological disciplines in the twentieth century, confirms the views of their colleagues of the previous century. Concerning the Hellenization of Christianity, scholars of different fields (history, philosophy, patristics and biblical studies) seem to agree that far from being a corruption of Christianity, Hellenization secured its survival and universality. In a recent scholarly review of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus – God and Man and Revelation as History, David W. Tracy has summarized the scholarly opinion of recent years as follows: "In fact, Pannenberg’s position not only allows, but also insists, that the Hellenistic tradition provided the necessary conditions of possibility for a clearer affirmation of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the universality of the eschatological self-revelation of God in the face of Jesus."

Orthodox and other leading non-Orthodox Christian theologians agree on the close relationship between Christianity and Greek thought. The late Russian-American theologian Georges Florovsky observes that "Hellenism has placed its eternal character upon the Church. It has become an inseparable part of her very being and as such every Christian is, to some extent, a Hellene. Hellenism is not simply a phase in the history of Christianity but a cornerstone in its life… There is no Catholic Christian theology outside of Hellenism." Florovsky refers, of course, tot he period of Christian antiquity, which developed under the influence of the Greek language, thought, piety, mysticism, and ethos. Christianity and Hellenism emerged as new synthesis in the Greek East and the Latin West of the Roman Empire.

A. Cleveland Coxe, editor of the American edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series, wrote about the Greek character of early Christianity: "Primitive Christianity was Greek in form and character, Greek from first to last, Greek in all its forms of dogma, worship and policy."

Arthur P. Stanley, a distinguished professor of ecclesiastical history at Oxford, some hundred years ago wrote in even more lively terms:

The Greek Church reminds us of the time when the tongue, not of Rome, but of Greece, was the sacred language of Christendom. It was a striking remark of the Emperor Napoleon that the introduction of Christianity itself was, in a certain sense, the triumph of Greece over Rome; the last and most signal instance of the maxim of Horace, Graecia capla ferum victorem cepit (captive Greece took its rude captor captive). The early Roman Church was but a colony of Greek Christians or Grecized Jews. The earliest Father of the Western Church wrote in Greek. The early popes were not Italians but Greeks. The name of the pope is not Latin, but Greek, the common and now despised name of every pastor in the Eastern Church. ….She is the mother and Rome the daughter. It is her privilege to claim a direct continuity of speech with the earliest times; to boast of reading the whole code of Scripture, Old as well as New, in the language in which it was read and spoken by the Apostles. The humblest peasant who reads his Septuagint or Greek Testament in his mother-tongue on the hills of Boeotia may proudly feel that he has access tot he original oracles of divine truth which pope and cardinal reach by a barbarous and imperfect translation; that he has a key of knowledge which in the West is only to be found in the hands of the learned classes.

Modern theologians echo Stanley’s thesis. Hugo Rahner, a leading Roman Catholic theologian, adds that "God spoke his revelation in the world of the Greek spirit and the Roman imperium and the Church guards this truth framed in the Greek speech of her sacred Book…The Church will continue to speak Greek even if…Hellas descend into the abyss of utter oblivion." And Georges Florovsky adds: "The task of our time, in the Orthodox world, is to rebuild the Christian-Hellenic culture, not out of the relics and memories of the past, but out of the perennial spirit of our Church, in which the values of culture were truly christened. Let us be more Hellenic in order that we may be truly Christian." The Greek spirit and culture and permanently wedded to the Christian faith, neither of which can be separated from the other without deforming itself. Indeed, "the heritage of the Greek spirit only attains immortality within the shrine of the Logos whose words are recorded in the tongue of Hellas."

While Tertullian, the second-century Christian apologist, scornfully satirised those who "advocated a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic [Aristotelian] Christianity" and Christianity wrestled for several centuries with Tertullian’s question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?", Greek Christianity had achieved at an early age a balance between the wisdoms of two cities, the thyrathen, that is, the Hellenic, and the Sacred.

The early Church arrived at the conclusion that the study of Greek wisdom was both useful and desirable provided the Christian rejected evil and retained all that is good and true, "for the good wherever it is found is a property of the truth," as Sokrates, the ecclesiastical historian, writes. But as a whole the Fathers and writers of the Greek Church did not seek to borrow essence and content from ancient Greek thought, for those they possessed in their sacred revelation. They sought to borrow methodologies, technical means, terminology, and logical or grammatical structures in order to build up the Christian edifice of theology, of doctrine, and thought.

As ancient Greek religion encompassed the whole of man and was concerned with the totality of man by having elaborate rituals for different occasions of his life – for rain and harvest, for the ill and the traveller – so the Orthodox Church is likewise very much concerned with the whole of man, body and soul. Thus she has rituals, prayers, and festivities for every significant event of man’s life. As the ancient Greeks "never felt any limitation to their religious imagination and curiosity," likewise the Christian Greeks enjoy a variety of religious events and expressions.

Not only in good but even in bad traditions and practices there are striking similarities between the two Greek religious worlds. In ancient Greece, religion was subordinate to civil authority and the city-state was the supreme power, appointing priests as state officials and establishing and supervising temples, sacred groves, and altars. Likewise Orthodox Christianity has been subordinated again and again to civil authority, and often the state, whether in the Byzantine era, in "holy" Russia, in Romania, or in Greece, has exercised a tremendous influence upon the Church.

Furthermore, as the priests in ancient Greek religion were never the final religious authority, so the clergy in Orthodoxy are never the Church proper or the final arbiters in matters of faith, ethics, or even ecclesiastical administration. Even though Greek Orthodox Christianity subscribes to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed and to the doctrinal decisions of ecumenical synods, and at the face may appear very conservative, if not stifling, the truth is that in practice there is in Greek Orthodoxy a tremendous variety of religious expression and freedom, similar to that of ancient Greece.

There have indeed been reactions against this Hellenic infiltration not only by Tertullian, Romanos the Melodist, and Iconoclasts, but also by Modern Greek Orthodox bishops who have stressed the need to de-Hellenize and re-Judaicize Christianity. Historically, however, all such attempts have failed. Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologian and scholars believe that the Judaization of Christianity would have been fatal, while its Hellenization determined its universal appeal and its catholic character. Greek Orthodox Christianity is Christocentric and biblical, but at the same time it bears all the characteristics of the Greek genius. Christianity’s religious schemes and theological categories reveal the influence of the ancient Greek mind. There is unity, but a unity in diversity. There is canon law, but it is not always enforced. The concept of the Roman auctoritas has found little fertile ground in the Greek East. The Greek emphasis on inquiry and the continuous quest for personal understanding and interpretation constitute the background of the development of "heresies," or "choices," outside the mainstream of Orthodoxy.

The contrasts in religious styles and practices in Orthodoxy recall the contrasts in religious faiths and styles of life in the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity was born and nurtured. To be sure, there were magic and superstition and terror. But there was also "a lofty mysticism with keen critical insight and clear philosophical alignment and a high and unselfish morality." There was asceticism in ugly forms as there was an asceticism of self-denial, self-knowledge, and continuous striving for spiritual perfection. Asceticism and continence as ideals of holiness, and the longing for soteria (salvation) and theosis (deification), were adopted by early Christianity from Greek religious or philosophical practices, from Orphic, Pythagorean, Stoic, and Hermetic teachings and practices.

It is fashionable even among Greek Orthodox theologians to criticize this infiltration, the rational element and the academic arguments in Orthodox theology, and instead to stress either the simplistic biblical, or the mystical and the ritualistic approach. We would agree with a Protestant critic of the "de-Hellenizers" who writes: "If the Church had full understood and accepted the purpose and spirit of Christ, the great rational Graeco-Roman civilization so far as we can see, need not have been swept away." It was Paul who contributed greatly to the development of harmonious relations between Christianity and the Greeks. He visited and established Christian congregation in all the important Hellenic centers of the Asiatic continent and the European mainland. He further explained the "unknown God," to whom the Greeks had erected numerous sanctuaries in such cities as Athens, Olympia, and Pergamum, and the Greeks did not hesitate to become his disciples. A distinguished historian of the Greek and Roman worlds, A. H. M. Jones, rightly observes that "the strength of early Christianity lay predominantly in Greek-speaking urban areas." The name "Christian" replaced the ethnic name of the Greeks for many centuries, while their national name, "Hellene," lost its original meaning.

Two factors contributed to this change. After Caracalla’s edict in 212, all Greeks and members of other nationalities of the Roman Empire became Roman citizens. Thus, from the third century on the Greeks were referred to as Romans, or Romeoi. Furthermore, with the attempts of Emperor Julian to revive paganism, "Hellene," as an ethnic or national name, came to be identified with the ancient religious cults, the pagan gods, and the ancient classical tradition in general. Hellene and Hellenismos became synonymous with paganism. The Greeks were simply Christians of the Roman Empire. The designation "Christian" persists to a great degree even today. When a Greek inquires about someone he does not know, he usually asks not whether the person is a Greek but whether he or she is a Christian.

For historical and circumstantial reasons the Greeks for many centuries developed a supranational conscience and preferred to identify themselves solely as Christians, especially during the centuries of captivity under the Turks. It is significant that although the patriarchs of Constantinople and many bishops of the Bulgarians, Albanians, and Slavs were Greeks during the Ottoman period, they did not attempt to Hellenize their congregations: neither did they try to force them to abandon their liturgical traditions and cultures. Of course, every rule has its exceptions. The fact is, however, that the tradition of the Greek Church has been one of religious toleration rather than nationalism. If this had not been true, the Greek Church, in the Byzantine centuries and especially during the four hundred years under the Turks, could have Hellenized all the minorities under her aegis or at least a great majority of them. The Greek historian K. Paparigopoulos, known for his patriotism, blamed the Church for not exploiting here numerous opportunities to Hellenize the various Balkan peoples in a period of four hundred years, something she could have done without much difficulty.

The term "Hellene" as an ethnic name began to appear among the Greeks of the high Middle Ages, but still was not commonly used. However, all nations living outside the medieval Greek world of the Byzantine Empire, such as the Russians, the Germans, Khazars, the English, the Georgians, the peoples of Italy, and the Franks, called the native inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire "Greeks." The designations "Greek Orthodox" and "Roman Catholic" were unknown in the early and medieval Church, and they took on their distinct meaning only after the eleventh century.

Nevertheless, it was Greeks, or Hellenized missionaries, both those of the Asiatic dispersion and those of the European continent, who played a leading role in the history of Christianity. Antioch, Tarsus, Ephesus, Smyrna, Philippi, Thessaloniki, Athens, Corinth, Nikopolis, the islands of Cyprus and Crete, were only a few of the many Greek cities and territories that heard the Christian gospel. All the important churches of the first three centuries were Greek or Greek-speaking. Besides Saint Paul, other Apostles such as Andrew, John the Evangelist, Philip, Luke, Mark, Titus, labored for the Christianization of the Greeks. As early as the second century there were flourishing churches not only in the cities just mentioned but also in such lesser Greek towns as Megara, Sparta, Patras, Larissa, Melos, Tenos, Paros, Thera, and Chios.

Many of these Greek cities produced great martyrs and profound thinkers during this period. Men such as Polycarp, Ignatios, Aristides, Athenagoras, Anakletos (bishop of Rome where he is listed as Anacletus), Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory the Illuminator of the Armenians, Justin, and Melito of Sardis were either Greek or Hellenized; some were born in the city of Athens or educated there. On the other hand, the persecutions of the Christians under the Roman emperors Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Galerius, Diocletian affected the Greek East much more than the Western Roman Empire. Dionysios, bishop of Athens, Aristios of Dyrrahion, Nikephoros, Cyprian, Dionysios, Anekitos, Parilos, Leonidas, Irene, Demetrios, Catherine, Zeno, Eusebius, Zoukos, Theodoulos are only a few of the thousands of martyrs of such places as Corinth, Athens, Thessaloniki, Gortyn in Crete, Philippi, and Kerkyra (Corfu). It was their blood that nourished the Christian seed, as Tertullian observed. The first period in the history of the Church ended with the edict of toleration in 313 under Constantine the Great, which prepared the way for Christianity to become the state religion of the later Roman and Byzantine empires.



Every student of history knows quite well the tremendous contributions of the Greeks to Christianity during the millennium of the Byzantine Empire. This was the period of the Great Greek Fathers, of immense missionary enterprises, of Christian thought, poetry, and literature. It was the period of local and ecumenical synods, which formed and defined the Christian faith basic to all Christian churches and denominations today. It was also an era of great social concern and cultural activity in the Church.

The Greek Orthodox today consider the following events as the chief landmarks of their medieval heritage. From the year 325 to 787, seven ecumenical synods were convened to discuss the common concerns of the universal Church: to define the Christian faith, to issue uniform canons, to plan their common destiny. The first and second ecumenical synods (Nicaea, 325, and Constantinople, 381) dealt with the Holy Trinity, while the third (Ephesus, 431) and fourth (Chalcedon, 451) dealt with the person of Jesus Christ.

It is true that most major heresies originated in the Greek East. But all of them were defeated on the same ground by the intellect, the logic, the mystical intuition, and the biblical scholarship of the Greek Fathers, or their Hellenized allies of the Near East. The Christian West a that time was going through a period of crisis and readjustment and there was little room for intellectual curiosity, discussion, inquiry, or theological or philosophical speculation. Thus, indeed, few heresies arose there. The Christian West was to produce its own great Fathers, such as Jerome, Ambrose, and especially Augustine. But early Christian theology was the work of the Greek rather than the Latin mind.

The seventh ecumenical synod (Nicaea II, of 787), was again a victory of the Greek mind and Christian understanding over the Semitic and Oriental mind. Its decisions were reaffirmed by the synod of 843, which proclaimed the legitimate place of icons, symbols, and representations in Christian worship. In other synods, such as those during the episcopacy of Photios, the synodal and democratic administrative system of the church was proclaimed, thus reaffirming the ancient apostolic tradition.

During this period there were several ecclesiastical centers that survive today as centers of Orthodoxy: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the island of Cyprus. With the exception of Antioch and Jerusalem, whose present-day Christians are Syrian and Arabic Orthodox, all the others maintain strong Greek-speaking Orthodox sees.

The great Church Fathers, theologians, monastics, and missionaries flourished during this same early medieval period. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Athanasios, Cyril, Eusebius of Caesarea, Maximos the Confessor, Leontios Byzantios, Romanos Melodos, John of Damascus, Theodore Studites, Tarasios, John Eleemon, Photios, Cyril and Methodios, Nicholas Mystikos, Michael Kerularios, and Symeon the New Theologian are a few of the many churchmen who made Christianity a vital and redeeming force in the Middle Ages.

One cannot overemphasize the outstanding contributions of the Church of Constantinople in the propagation of the Christian faith to the peoples of Asia Minor as well as to those of Central and Eastern Europe. The Greek brothers Cyril and Methodios from Thessaloniki, apostles to the Slavs, were missionaries of culture and civilization as well as of religion.

Highly educated, Cyril and Methodios undertook to form a written alphabet for the Slav nations so as to translate the Bible and sacred books into their tongue, shape their worship, and enable them to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Bulgarians, Pannonians, Moravians, Czechs, Russians, and other tribes "rejoiced to hear the Greatness of God extolled in their native tongue," as the Russian Primary Chronicle put it.

The Church manifested a brilliant social consciousness during this period. Saint Basil, John Chrysostom, John Eleemon, Justinian, Theophilos, Constantine IX, John II Komnenos, and many other churchmen and emperors inaugurated considerable social welfare programs, all of which were under the aegis of the Church. Hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, reformatory institutions, hospices, leprosaria, and other philanthropic institutions were built next to churches and monasteries. The monastic communities of such cities and regions as Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Athos, Ephesus were great social forces in the work of the Church.

The development and cultivation of literature, art, and culture during the Middle Ages is another important chapter in the history of the Greek Church. Greek Church poetry is indeed brilliant and comprises many large volumes used in the Church today. Byzantine art, which is becoming more and more popular, is an achievement in itself. Monasteries were praying communities as well as working and artistic laboratories. The art of calligraphy, together with the transcription of the works of classical authors and Church Fathers, was strongly encouraged by the Church.

In brief, notwithstanding its shortcomings, and they were many, the Greek medieval Church was a very positive and constructive institution for the propagation of Christianity and the preservation of Greek and Roman culture. It was during this period, however, that Latin Christianity, which had been isolated for several centuries, broke away from its roots and its unity with Greek Christianity. The great schism of 1054 was the result of many factors, linguistic, cultural, theological, and political.

It was the Western Church that estranged herself from the Eastern Church. Constantinople had been the capital of the Empire since AD 330. The city of Constantine was the commanding center of the orbis Romanorum. By abandoning old Rome and moving to the Greek East, Constantine indicated that the future of the empire lay in the East. The Byzantine Greeks almost ignored the developments in the Western Church, where the bishop of Rome was the sole patriarch. True, the Eastern Church acknowledged and honored the bishop of the old capital as the first among equals (primus inter pares) in honor, but she did not consider him Pontifex Maximus (chief bishop) or vicar of Christ on earth.

Appeals to Rome from the clergy of the Eastern Church in disciplinary or theological matters were rare. When bishops were elected patriarchs of Eastern sees they did not ask for confirmation by the pope but simply announced their elevation and added their confession of faith in order to declare that their faith was the same as that of the first patriarchal sees. The same announcement and declaration of faith or a very similar one were sent to each of the other patriarchs. Even Roman Catholic and other Western theologians and historians, such as Francis Dvornik and H. Grotz, acknowledge that the heads of the Eastern patriarchates acted independently in disciplinary matters in their jurisdictions. No Church rules existed that obliged the Eastern or Greek patriarchs to submit themselves to Rome before the ninth century. It was in the middle of the ninth century that the Roman pope made claims of supreme jurisdiction over all patriarchs and bishops of Christendom. But even those claims were formulated on the basis of spurious documents, the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. The strain in relation between the two parts of Christendom was intensified after the ninth century, when several powerful popes like Nicholas I (858-867) thought of extending to the East the authority they exercised in the West.

H. Grotz, an eminent contemporary Roman Catholic Church historian, analyzing the development of the papal primacy in Western Christendom, writes:

In the West the extraordinary position of the Pope had relatively crystallized [in the ninth century] owing to the progress made by theological speculations, due to the Germanic devotional piety towards Rome, thanks also to the political development which promoted the Pope almost to a guardian of the imperial crown, but also thanks to the legend of Pope Sylvester, to the legendary Donation of Constantine and to the appearance of the Pseudo-Decretals.

But the Western understanding of the papacy was foreign tot he Eastern mind, which believed that the supreme authority of the Church rested with the ecumenical synod and that the universal Church honored the heads of the five patriarchates above all other bishops, amongst whom the patriarch or pope of Rome was the first.

When disputes arose among the clergy of the Eastern Church, the ultimate authority was Constantinople, not Rome. The ninth Canon of the fourth ecumenical synod (451) clearly prescribes:

If any clergyman has a dispute with another…let him first submit his case to his own bishop, or let it be tried by referees chosen by both parties and approved by the bishop. Let anyone who acts contrary be liable to canonical penalties. If, on the other hand, a clergyman has a dispute with his own bishop or with some other bishop, let it be tried by the synod of the province. But if any bishop or clergyman has a dispute with the metropolitan of the same province, let him apply either to the exarch of the diocese or to the throne of the imperial capital Constantinople, and let it be tried before him.

The Eastern Church, whether in the past or in the present, has never accepted a patriarch or a pope as infallible. In fact, she has condemned some as heretics. For example, the third ecumenical synod (431) condemned Patriarch Nestorios for heresy, and the sixth ecumenical synod (681) condemned Pope Honorius for heresy.

In any case, after several confrontations between the Eastern and Western, or Greek and Latin, churches, there came a crisis in the year 1054, which is the traditional date of the great schism. The major problem in the dispute was the Roman claim to primacy in arbitrating all matters of faith, morals, and administration. The Greek East, which knew of no precedent for this claim, had refused to accept it. The Orthodox position toward the Roman claims can be found in the answer of Niketas, archbishop of Nikomedia, to Anselm, bishop of Havelberg, in the twelfth century. To several accusations of Anselm’s, Niketas responded as follows:

My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister patriarchates [Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem], and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an ecumenical synod. But, she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office…How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us and our churches not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We would be the slaves not the sons of such of church, and the Roman see would not the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves…In such a case what could have been the use of the scriptures? The writings and the teachings of the Fathers would be useless. The authority of the Roman pontiff would nullify the value of all because he would be the only bishop, the sole teacher and master.

The two worlds were further divided as a result of the barbarism of the Crusades and the brutalities they inflicted upon the Greek East. The Crusader’ "macabre expression of a pagan death-wish," in the words of a modern Western historian, brought the final rupture between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. The fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204 marked the beginning of the end of the medieval period of the Greek Church, which then entered into her darkest centuries.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Greek Orthodox Church became a "nation" under the Turks. At the beginning the Church seemed to thrive under the privileges that were granted her by the conqueror Mohammed II. The patriarch and actually every bishop in his own diocese was invested with religious and civil powers, and each one of them became the spokesman of his flock.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, as well as the heads of other autocephalous, or self-governing, churches, came to be known as "ethnarchs," a title that the archbishop of Cyprus retains today, and that denotes the religious and national spokesman of their constituents. However, the ecumenical patriarch, who had been acknowledged as the "first among equals" in the East, became the most important religious leader of all Christians under the Turks. A few of them proved unworthy hierarchs, but others rose above the temptations, the corruption, and the pressures of the sultan as worthy representatives and even martyrs.

Many patriarchs and other clerics of the Orthodox Church who refused to obey the whim of the sultans were dethroned or exiled or in most cases put to death. A few cases may suffice to substantiate this point. Joachim I (1504) was dethroned; Cyril Loukaris (1638), Cyril Kontaris (1639), Parthenios (1504), Parthenios III (1657), Gregory V (1821), and others were put to death. Neophytos (1707) was thrown into the galleys, and several others, such as Jeremia II (1769), Anthimos III (1824), Chrysanthos (1826), and Agathagelos (1830) were exiled. In addition to heavy taxation of the Christians, as well as insults and arbitrary actions on the part of the Turkish autocracy, the Church suffered from confiscation of its houses of worship and property, and Christians were forced to deny their faith and adopt the Moslem religion.

Notwithstanding many outbreaks of Islamic fanaticism during those four centuries, the Greek Church manifested a great deal of vitality. No epoch that produces martyrs can be described as morbid and corrupt. In particular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Orthodox witnessed to their faith "unto death." The Greek Church commemorates the names of many neomartyrs, who preferred to die rather than deny their Christian faith, among them Michael Mavroides, Gabriel II, Theodore of Mytilene, Christodoulos, Cyril of Thessaloniki (burned alive in July 1566, at the age of 22), Mark Kyriakopoulos (beheaded in 1643 at Smyrna), John (put to death in 1652, at the age of 14) – 172 in all.

Objective information about all of this has been transmitted not only through Greek primary sources, but through the observation of Western travelers or civil servants who served in various cities of the Ottoman Empire. For example, the British consul Paul Ricaut, stationed in Smyrna, wrote about 1678 a vivid account of the state of the Greek and the Armenian churches under the Turks.

The increase and prevalence of the Christian faith against the violence of kings and emperors, and all the terrors of death, is a demonstration of its verity; so the stable perseverance in these our days [i.e., 1678] of the Greek Church therein, notwithstanding the oppression and contempt put upon it by the Turk, and the allurements and pleasures of this world, is a confirmation no less convincing than the miracles and power which attended its first beginnings: for indeed it is admirable to see and consider with what constancy, Resolution, and Simplicity, ignorant and poor men kept their Faith; and that the proffer of worldly preferments and the privilege which they enjoy be becoming Turks, the mode and Fashion of that country which they inhabit…would have induced the Greeks to denounce their faith.

Ricaut adds that much of their perseverance "is to be attributed to the grace of God and the promises of the gospel."

On the one hand the Greek Church suffered from the Turkish and Islamic oppression and persecution, and on the other, she also suffered from the propaganda, the intrigues, and the proselytizing activities of Western European Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Paul Ricaut adds:

But not only hath the Greek Church the Turks for an enemy and an oppressor, but also the Latines; who not being able by their missionaries to gain them to their party, and persuade them to renounce the jurisdiction of their Patriarchs, and own the authority and supremacy of the Roman Bishop do never omit those occasions which may bring them under the lash of the Turk, and engage them in a constant and continual expense, hoping that the people being oppressed and tired, and in no condition of having relief under the protection of their own Governors, may at length be induced to embrace a foreign Head, who hath riches and power to defend them. Moreover, besides their wiles, the Roman priests frequent all places, where the Greeks inhabit, endeavoring to draw them unto their side both by preachings and writings.

On account of this the late British scholar A. H. Hore of Trinity College, Oxford observed: "The fall of the Eastern Europe Empire and the low state to which the persecuted Greek Church fell, and from which it is little less than a miracle that it should now be recovering, is a chapter of dishonor and disgrace in the history of Western Europe."

No doubt the Greek Church found herself between various adversaries whose only objective was to convert her faithful to their own creeds. However, much decay originated from within the administration of the Church herself. Simony, quarrels, and poverty among the clergy contributed tot he already low state of the Church. I agree with several modern historians who believe that "the survival of the Greek Church under four centuries of Turkish rule is no less than a miracle."

The Greek Orthodox Church is not to be confused with the "Greek Catholic Church," which is a branch of the Roman Church. In fact, the Church of Rome includes members of the Byzantine Rite. The Orthodox on the other hand, who commonly use the name "Greek Catholic," use it always with other attributes such as Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic, Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic, etc. "Greek Catholic" alone refers to the Roman branch of Greek liturgical background, also known as "Uniate," i.e., in the union with the Roman Catholic Church.

There are several major differences between the Orthodox and the Roman churches, including the following: The primacy and infallibility of the Roman pope; the Filioque clause, that is, the teaching concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son; the teachings on purgatory, and on the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of the Theotokos (Mary the God-bearer). All these are rejected by the Orthodox. In addition there are other doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and administrative differences between the Orthodox and the Latin Churches. The Greek Church recognizes only a primacy of honor due to the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Constantinople, and other Church leaders, for historical reasons. The institution of the Roman papacy as it evolved in the West after the ninth century was foreign to the early Church; thus it has never been accepted in the East. The development of the Roman primacy was one of the major causes of the schism between the Latin West and the Greek East, and it continues to be a stumbling block for the reunion of Christendom, since it has become an element of the doctrinal teaching of the Roman Catholic faith. No doubt the idea of the primacy of the bishop of Rome is in harmony with the Roman imperial tradition, but in Orthodox eyes it is alien to the teaching Christ and the early Church. The Roman Catholic Church after Charlemagne transformed the primacy of honor into a primacy of leadership and authority, and the bishop of Rome claimed to be the Pontifex Maximus over all Christendom. These claims brought about the rupture between the Latin West and the Greek East in the eleventh century.

Both the New Testament and the documents of the late first and early second centuries support the Orthodox teaching that the early Church was governed by a board or a synod of bishops. Christ entrusted His gospel to the Apostles "appointed their successors…to bishops…of those who were to receive the faith," as Saint Clement of Rome writes. A work of visions called The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, speaks about "those who rule the Church of Rome…and the presbyters who are set over the Church."

Another Father of the Church, Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248-258), points out that "the episcopal office and the organization of the Church have come down to us so that the Church is founded upon the bishops and every act of the Church is controlled by these same officers." He further emphasizes that all the bishops are equal in rank and authority. He adds that "neither does any of us [bishops] set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience…Our Lord Jesus Christ…is the only one that has the power of preferring us [the bishops] as the government of His Church." Cyprian’s views about the equality of the bishops in Church were shared by other writers of the first three centuries. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea (c. 256) is another witness to this principle.

But even in the West each bishop was essentially independent of higher ecclesiastical authority, and only after the ninth century is there a strong tendency on the part of the bishop of Rome to assert himself over the rest of the bishops, who because of their weakness, needed protection from some strong political or ecclesiastical leader. Political circumstances contributed to the emergence of a supreme ecclesiastical authority in Western Christendom. Unification under effective head, who could exercise authority over all the clergy and protect them from secular lords, became desirable. The papacy, as it is understood today, appears essentially in the eleventh century, when it was strengthened especially by the activities of the Clunaic movement, which aspired to see the Church united and purified under a central bishop – the pope of Rome.

It should be emphasized that as long as the Roman Catholic Church teaches the supremacy in authority and power of the bishop of Rome over all Christendom, there is little hope for progress in the ecumenical dialogue on the reunion of the Churches. The Orthodox Church would have no hesitation in accepting the bishop of Rome as the primus inter pares, the first among equals. But she would yield no other ground on that important subject. To be sure, there are many similarities between the two churches, and they possess a common heritage in doctrine, ethics, and worship on various aspects of Church life, the two differ only in outlook and method. For example concerning their attitude toward the mission of the Church in the world, "Catholics see the extension the Church and the numbers of the faithful; the Orthodox see the depth of the Church and the quality of its members...; the exterior, social, quantitative or statistical facts are of little importance to them [the Orthodox]" in the words of the Roman Catholic theologian and metropolitan Andrew Sheptysky.

There were several trends in Medieval Greek Christianity, which to some degree persist to the present day. There is evangelical and fundamentalist Orthodox Christianity, emphasizing traditionalism and Biblicism as the major criteria of Orthodoxy. This has been the faith of the monks, the conservative clergy, and the common folk, and it can be traced back to theologians like Anastasios Sinaites, John Chrysostom, Theodore Studites, and others. Mysticism has nurtured several independent minds and has been a powerful trend in Orthodoxy from as early as the Byzantine era. In the persons of Maximos the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and Nicholas Kabasilas, Orthodox mysticism was developed into a profound theology that has become the subject of many studies in recent years. But we have more to say on mysticism in another chapter.



The modern period in the history of the Greek Church begins with the liberation of a considerable segment of the Hellenic world from the Turks in 1832. To the five autocephalous (self-governing) Greek-speaking Orthodox Churches of that time, namely, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and the Church of Cyprus, there was added the autocephalous Church of Greece.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, with jurisdiction over the Greek Orthodox of Western Europe, North and South America, Australia, and several islands of Greece, has a membership of approximately five million faithful. The ecumenical patriarch, who heads it, is respected by all Orthodox as the first among equals and serves as the strongest link of unity among all Orthodox. Despite harassment by Turkish governments in the past decade or so, the Patriarchate remains the most important citadel in all Orthodoxy. Until very recently it maintained an excellent theological school, and its initiative in and contributions to the ecumenical movement are out standing examples of progressive, albeit suffering, Church.

Among the outstanding contributions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in recent years, several deserve our attention. Many endeavors have been undertaken to bring into closer cooperation all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches of the world. The Patriarchate aspires to establish a federation of all Orthodox churches and to make their spiritual unity visible in their administrative cooperation. The recent pan-Orthodox synods on the island of Rhodes manifest the spirit of cooperation and brotherly love that characterizes worldwide Orthodoxy today.

It was through the untiring efforts of the late Patriarch Athenagoras that several Orthodox Churches joined the World Council of Churches in the last twenty-five years. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has initiated dialogues between the Orthodox on the one hand and the Anglican, the Old Catholic, and the Oriental Churches on the other. The meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in January 1964 eased the way for a new era in relations between the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. This was achieved through the efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which proved an apostle of love, understanding, and cooperation.

Despite its limited resources, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is very active in social and philanthropic projects. It maintains forty philanthropic societies, which minister tot he needs of the needy in Istanbul and elsewhere. The societies are under the supervision of the Pneumatike Diakonia, or Spiritual Diaconate. Children are of special concern to this patriarchal organization. It helps poor boys and girls in their tender years and sees them through college. The diaconate grants several scholarships every year and often helps students even during their graduate studies abroad. In addition to offering many scholarships, the Patriarchate supports summer camps for both sexes between the ages of 7 and 14. More than five hundred students benefit from this program annually. There are also camps for working youths, the benefits of which are extended to more than two hundred annually. These are generous numbers when we consider that the faithful of Istanbul number only a few thousand.

The Patriarchate spends several thousands of Turkish liras every month for several poor families in Istanbul and provides many thousands more in dowries for poor girls. The marriage of poor girl who is under the protection of the Patriarchate with a bishop officiating, thus indicating that the mother Church makes no distinction between the rich and poor.

The social awareness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate today brings to mind the great philanthropic programs of the same Patriarchate during the Middle Ages, that is, of the Byzantine era. Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, who was elevated to the patriarchal throne while he was archbishop of North and South America, added new dimensions tot he mission of the Patriarchate and was admired for his vision and prophetic charisma.

The Patriarchate of Alexandria is the heir of a rich tradition of theological scholarship and missionary activity. It maintains jurisdiction over all the Greek Orthodox of Egypt and Africa, with a membership of approximately two hundred thousand. Of course, the Church of Alexandria is but a shadow when compared with its past. Nonetheless, in view of its most successful missions in several new African nations, such as Uganda and Tanzania, its vitality should not be underestimated.

The nearby Church of Cyprus is one of the oldest autocephalous Christian communities. It became self-governing during the sixth century, when Justinian granted it special privileges. It has suffered much, from the seventh century up to recent times, as a result of the strategic position of the island and its having been conquered several times. Nevertheless, it has more than half a million members. It is a vigorous Church, with a seminary, three metropolitan episcopates, philanthropic institution, and periodicals.

The Church of Greece, with a membership of approximately nine million people, was officially recognized as a self-governing church in 1850. She increased both territorially and numerically after a series of revolutionary wars that brought to the Greek nation the territories of Epiros, Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace and the Ionian and Aegean islands. Greece is a solidly Orthodox Christian country. The Church is indeed "the soul of Greece," as an American author recently observed.

The Church of Greece is divided into 66 small dioceses, with 7,765 parishes, more or less, whose vitality in the post-World War II period was notable in religious education, social consciousness, and theological scholarship. The catechetical, or Sunday schools are a source of pride in Greece for both clergymen and laymen. The religious revivals initiated by such movements as Zoë, the Orthodox Christian Unions, Apostolike Diakonia, and Soter, to mention only the most important of them, gave new life to the Church of Greece. During the war and postwar years, between 1940 and 1947, the young people of Greece were sought after by Communist youth organizations and religious youth societies, and most joined one or the other. Young men and women, perplexed and confused as result of the decadence, injustices, and brutality introduced by the "civilized barbarians" of the twentieth century, desperately needed guidance and structure in their lives.

Several young men I knew would undoubtedly have joined the Communist movement had a vigorous Church and vital religious organizations not attracted them away from communism. The Christian organizations worked through various channels and reached every class of people. The simple peasant as well as the university professor, the young laborer as well as the university student, the parent as well as the young girl could find in the Church a place of love and solace. The catechetical schools reached their zenith in the middle 1950’s. Up to 1954 the Church of Greece counted more than 7,750 well-organized Sunday schools.

As a result of these postwar revivals, Church attendance increased greatly, Bible study became common, participation in the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion became frequent, and the social consciousness of the Church flourished to an unprecedented degree.

Unfortunately, very little is known by the non-Orthodox about the social consciousness of the Greek Orthodox Church. Yet every diocese of Greece is a center of philanthropic activity. Not only has the Church issued encyclicals expressive of her concern for social justice, but each bishop has a treasury of Funds for the Poor and maintains several welfare institutions. Throughout Greece, the Church maintains nearly 2,750 philanthropic institutions including 2,452 funds for daily needs of the poor, 42 orphanages, 123 boarding homes for poor students; 66 homes for the aged; 7 hospitals, and 50 summer camps. The philanthropic work of several dioceses is very impressive. For example, the diocese of Dimitrias, with 124 parishes, maintains twelve charitable institutions. The diocese of Messinia, with a population of perhaps a hundred thousand, supports fourteen philanthropic establishments. The diocese of Lesbos, with 60 parishes, supports twelve welfare institutions.

The concern of the Church is often extended to included donations for poor or orphaned girls; the distribution of funds to individuals released from prison; the distribution of food and clothing to poor families, schoolchildren, and individuals in want. Many dioceses support impoverished students of theology and other disciplines, including graduate students. Every parish also has a relief treasury, or logia, for the needs of the local poor people or needy travelers. However, the social consciousness of the Greek Church is most clearly manifested when disasters strike, such as during the war years and the subsequent foreign occupations, the disastrous earthquakes in the Ionian islands and Thessaly, and other catastrophes. It is no exaggeration to state that the Church has often proved a bastion of social justice and part of the vanguard in welfare and relief programs. During the German occupation of Greece in the 1940s the Church intervened numerous times on behalf of the Jewish people of Greece. Archbishop Damaskinos offered special housing and all the necessary means to save Greek Jews. He made himself and the Greek Church responsible for their future. Damaskinos’ endeavors unfortunately railed, but the good will and humanism of the Greek Church was manifest.

The social work of the Greek Church was extended to protect and save British and Australian soldiers who were left behind after the German occupation of Greece. No other Church suffered so much from the Axis; she also suffered from the efforts of the Communists to take over Greece during the decade of 140-1950. More than four hundred clergymen were killed either because they were men of religious principles or because they were patriots. A substantial sacrifice indeed from a church with little more than seven thousand clergymen.

The third aspect that requires special attention is the vitality of theological scholarship in Greek schools of theology today. During the last fifty years Greece has produced great theologians of international reputation. In addition to two schools of theology, the Church supports several seminaries for the training of parish priests. The concern of many theologians is both academic and ecclesiastical.

Greek theology is not "a theology of the university lecture room." Some Greek theologians are men of university rank and also clergymen. There are several theologians today whose "intrinsic worth is such that any company of modern scholars would gladly and gratefully admit them to their fellowship," as the theologian Frank Gavin once said. If they are little known outside Greece, it is because they write in Modern Greek, a language that few Western European and American scholars have come to learn.

Greek Orthodox theology had served often and will continue to serve as a martyria, a witness to the theology of the early and the medieval Church; it has contributed significantly to the ecumenical movement and under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox theology will continue to work for the restoration of the Christian world and the unity of the Church.

The Greek-speaking Orthodox Churches of Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Greece, together with churches of other Orthodox jurisdictions, comprise the Orthodox Church, which was born as a result of the meeting between Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and the Greeks in the city of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago.



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