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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The emphasis on apophatic theology and the distinction between the essence and energies of God are special characteristics of Orthodox thought. Orthodox beliefs regarding the Trinity and God's incarnation as Jesus are the same as the overwhelming majority of Christian traditions. However, there remains a disagreement between eastern and western churches on the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed. The Filioque, or the phrase that professes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, was added to the creed in 589 by a council of western bishops, and never adopted by the eastern churches. The arguments are largely technical in nature, and there are roughly two schools of thought about it within Eastern Orthodoxy. One school, taking a harder stance, argues that when the western churches profess belief that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," they are fundamentally distorting the doctrine of the Trinity by subordinating the Holy Spirit to the Son, thus diluting the equality between the divine persons. The other school, taking a more conciliatory stance, argues that while the Roman Church's unilateral insertion of the Filioque into the Nicene Creed is to be lamented, it can still be interpreted in a manner consistent with Orthodox theology.

Eastern Orthodoxy shows deep affection and devotion for Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is called the Theotokos, translated as God-bearer, or Mother of God. She received this title at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. Mary is honored because of the Incarnation, in which God became human. Orthodox Christians believe that a certain attitude of awe and reverence is due to the woman who was chosen to be the means of such a great mystery. They also honor Mary's willing consent to participate in this mystery, as she is believed to have said, "I am the Lord's servant; may it be to me as you have said" (Lk. 1:38). While Eastern Orthodoxy does not consider the doctrines of Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption to be church dogma, it teaches that Mary was resurrected after her physical death and her tomb left empty, and doesn't object if individual believers hold that Mary was conceived without original sin.

Eastern Orthodoxy specifically distinguishes the veneration (Greek, dulia) of Mary from the worship (Greek, latreia) of God. While Orthodox believers might express reverence for Mary, worship is given to God alone.

Study Questions:
1.     How do Eastern Orthodox believers understand the Trinity?
2.     What is apophatic theology, and why is this important in Orthodoxy?
3.     What is the Filioque? Why might it be controversial to other Christian traditions?
4.     Who is the Theotokos? Why is she honored?


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