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The Catholic Consciousness of the Church


THE ORTHODOX CHURCH of Christ is the Body of Christ, a spiritual organism whose Head is Christ It has a single spirit, a single common faith, a single and common catholic consciousness, guided by the Holy Spirit; and its reasonings are based on the concrete, definite foundations of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Apostolic Tradition. This catholic consciousness is always with the Church, but, in a more definite fashion, this consciousness is expressed in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. From profound Christian antiquity, local councils of separate Orthodox Churches gathered twice a year, in accordance with the 37th Canon of the Holy Apostles. Likewise, often in the history of the Church there were councils of regional bishops representing a wider area than individual Churches and, finally, councils of bishops of the whole Orthodox Church of both East and West. Such Ecumenical Councils the Church recognizes as seven in number. The Ecumenical Councils formulated precisely and confirmed a number of the fundamental truths of the Orthodox Christian Faith, defending the ancient teaching of the Church against the distortions of heretics. The Ecumenical Councils likewise formulated numerous laws and rules governing public and private Christian church life, which are called the Church canons, and required the universal and uniform observance of them. Finally, the Ecumenical Councils confirmed the dogmatic decrees of a number of local councils, and also the dogmatic statements composed by certain Fathers of the Church for example, the confession of faith of St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea, the canons of St. Basil the Great, and so forth.

When in the history of the Church it happened that councils of bishops permitted heretical views to be expressed in their decrees, the catholic consciousness of the Church was disturbed and was not pacified until authentic Christian truth was restored and confirmed by means of another council. One must remember that the councils of the Church made their dogmatic decrees a) after a careful, thorough and complete examination of all those places in Sacred Scripture which touch a given question, b) thus testifying that the Ecumenical Church has understood the cited passages of Sacred Scripture in precisely this way. In this way the decrees of the councils concerning faith express the harmony of Sacred Scripture and the catholic Tradition of the Church. For this reason these decrees became themselves, in their turn, an authentic, inviolable, authoritative, Ecumenical and Sacred Tradition of the Church, founded upon the facts of Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

Of course, many truths of the Faith are so immediately clear from Sacred Scripture that they were not subjected to heretical reinterpretations; therefore, concerning them there are no specific decrees of councils. Other truths, however, were confirmed by councils.

Among all the dogmatic decrees of councils, the Ecumenical Councils themselves acknowledge as primary and fundamental the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Symbol of Faith and they forbade any change whatsoever in it, not only in its ideas, but also in its words, either by addition or subtraction (decree of the Third Ecumenical Council, repeated by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Councils).

The decrees regarding faith which were made by a number of local councils, and also certain expositions of the Faith by the holy Fathers of the Church, are acknowledged as a guide for the Whole Church and are numbered in the second Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (in Trullo).

 Dogmas and Canons

In ecclesiastical terminology dogmas are the truths of Christian teaching, the truths of faith, and canons are the prescriptions: relating to church order, church government, the obligations of the church hierarchy and clergy and of every Christian, which flow from the moral foundations of the evangelical and Apostolic teaching. Canon is a Greek word which literally means "a straight rod, a measure of precise direction."

 The Works Of The Holy Fathers

For guidance in questions of faith, for the correct understanding of Sacred Scripture, and in order to distinguish the authentic Tradition of the Church from false teachings, we appeal to the works of the holy Fathers of the Church, acknowledging that the unanimous agreement of all of the Fathers and teachers of the Church in teaching of the Faith is an undoubted sign of truth. The holy Fathers stood for the truth, fearing neither threats nor persecutions nor death itself. The Patristic explanations of the truths of the Faith 1) gave precision to the expression of the truths of Christian teaching and created a unity of dogmatic language; 2) added testimonies of these truths from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and also brought forth for them arguments based on reason. In theology, attention is also given to certain private opinions of the holy Fathers or teachers of the Church on questions which have not been precisely defined and accepted by the whole Church. However, these opinions are not to be confused with dogmas, in the precise meaning of the word. There are some private opinions of certain Fathers and teachers which are not recognized as being in agreement with the general catholic faith of the Church, and are not accepted as a guide to faith.

 The Divine Services

The Catholic consciousness of the Church, where it concerns the teaching of faith, is also expressed in the Orthodox Divine Services which have been handed down to us by the Ecumenical Church. By entering deeply into the content of the Divine service books we make ourselves firmer in the dogmatic teaching of the Orthodox Church.

The content of the Orthodox Divine services is the culminating expression of the teaching of the holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church, both in the sphere of dogma and of morals. This is splendidly expressed in the hymn (the kontakion) which is sung on the day of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils: "The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers have imprinted upon the Church a single faith which, bearing the garment of truth woven of the theology from above, rightly dispenseth and glorifieth the great mystery of piety."

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