Paleo Living and Orthodox Lent

[Note: This is a repost from an AncientFaith.com blog that is no longer online. What follows was originally published February 2014 and subsequently has been lightly revised. If you find any errors or dead links, please shoot me an email. This post is a bit outside the usual material for this site, but as we ramp up to start putting more content online here, it seems reasonable to go ahead and archive it here. The content here is based on my current knowledge and experience, and is no substitute for health advice from a doctor or spiritual advice from clergy.]

By Jamey Bennett

During my first Orthodox Lent, my cradle Orthodox friend Joe Bush remarked (probably over hummus): “Lent’s funny, you know. When I was growing up, my aunts all gained weight during Lent.”

And he’s unfortunately right—for many of us, we make up for the meat, eggs, and dairy with a heavy load of grains, soy products, and unhealthy faux-meats, while our waistlines suffer the consequences.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can follow the Orthodox fasting standards and still nourish our bodies.

paleolivingandorthodoxlent

For those who know me, it’s no secret that I adopted a “Paleo” or “Primal” eating strategy in 2013, shed forty pounds in short order, and lowered my blood pressure—all while traveling across several states, through dozens of cities, and one U.S. territory. These results have elicited many questions and comments from both friends and family, and as Great Lent draws near, I am often asked how to reconcile the two paths of fasting for spiritual benefit and following a Paleo diet for the sake of good health. (And before I really get going, let me be clear: I am not trying to convert you to “be Paleo,” nor am I trying to stand in the place of your priest or doctor. We must remember our fasting is an ascetical discipline closely connected to our fellowship with each other and God in the Eucharist. Paleo is an eating strategy for health.)

Let’s review the don’ts, and I’ll paint with a fairly broad brush.

Orthodox fast days generally exclude olive oil, wine, and animal products like dairy, eggs, and meat (shellfish is allowed, along with bony fish on other days). Some people opt to wait until 3 pm to eat their primary meal on each fast day, but that’s probably not the typical approach. Orthodox fasting is on a spectrum—some will take wine to mean all alcohol, or olive oil to mean all oils, and a few will eat fish throughout the fast. And some days on the calendar are simply more relaxed than others.

The Paleo diet is also on a spectrum. Really, it might be better to speak of “paleo diets.” Generally, it excludes legumes (beans, peanuts, peas, soy, etc.), grains (corn, wheat, bread, sometimes rice, etc.), processed oils (soybean, canola, etc.), most or all refined or added sugars, most or all dairy, and tends to go easy on high-sugar fruits, starchy vegetables, and in many cases, tubers (like potatoes). Exceptions abound, and athletic Paleo folks may emphasize resistant starches more than others, and some folks leave off nightshades for other reasons. Positively, many Paleo-type diets emphasizes eating on the lower carbohydrate end of things (at least compared to most modern diets), with little or no fear of healthy fats—usually from animal sources, certain plants (like avocados or nuts), and healthy oils (like coconut or olive oil—choose your olive oil carefully). Organ meats and shellfish may be encouraged, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables round out this sort of plan. The basic idea is lots of plants and animals, often closely aligned to their whole and natural state.

So how does one navigate both Lenten guidelines and the Paleo lifestyle?

1. Focus on healthy fruits, vegetables, nuts, and allowed oils as the platform of your diet.

 

Vegetables, lower-sugar fruits, and perhaps potatoes are the core nourishment during this fasting period, providing you with an essential, nutritious foundation. The ANDI Guide (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) is an imperfect, but helpful resource to help you find the most nutrient-dense vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Kale, basil, cilantro, cranberries, strawberries, carrots, and spinach are all great choices. Try adding fermented foods to your diet, too, such as a few forkfuls of sauerkraut or kimchi with a meal or two a day.

I like to eat a lot of leafy green salads, and I always feel my best when I have one big salad every day (and it can easily be thrown together in just two minutes). Unfortunately, most commercial salad dressings are full of yucky stuff. Try vinegars with avocado oil, make your own, or look for brands like Walden Farms, Primal KitchenBragg’s, or Tessemae’s, all of which have salad dressings that avoid harmful industrial oils.

Make babaganoush with avocado oil instead of olive oil; make hummus with mac nuts instead of chick peas; or take the time to soak the chick peas before whipping up a batch, or even try to find an oil-free hummus; in some dishes you can even let cauliflower stand in for rice (or if you aren’t watching carbs, go ahead and use white rice), and many grocery stores now carry cauliflower rice in the frozen section.

Some Paleo diets emphasize fat over carbohydrate, and protein suggestions vary. Consider stocking up on coconut or avocado oils, buy fresh avocados regularly, and pick up some nuts. These are good, rich, and healthy fats—crucial fuel to keep you going through the day. Healthy fats may help alleviate your appetite, give you fuel, and help stabilize energy levels. That said, don’t go too nuts with nuts, probably avoid peanuts altogether, and beware of nuts roasted in seed oils. Consider trying a bit of coconut oil in your coffee for a satiating morning boost.

If you feel like you must have noodles, look into shirataki noodles for a low-carb and gluten-free alternative to wheat or rice-based noodles. You won’t get much nutrition out of shirataki, but it’s a traditional Japanese noodle, pretty harmless, and is great for, ahem, “encouraging” digestion. Consider something like Miracle Noodle as a source, or a similar, non-soy-based shirataki noodle (there are several soy-based impostors on the market). Miracle Noodle even makes a no-carb “rice” that is plenty edible.

2. Focus on getting your protein from shellfish and plants.

The biggest concern vegans, vegetarians, and Orthodox fasters hear is whether or not one can get enough protein on a plant-based diet. The typical go-to plant-based proteins are beans and other legumes, but it is ideal to soak and/or sprout them first to reduce or neutralize some of the anti-nutrients present. Few do this regularly, and so for most, it’s a no-go, but for some, it may be okay. Tempeh is one possibility—while it is soy, the fermentation process for tempeh makes it a slightly better choice than tofu (but other options are available).

Almonds, broccoli, and spinach contain plant-based protein, even if it’s not very much. Take the time to browse the Internet for protein content in non-legume vegetables so you can make an informed decision at the market.

Even better, go for shellfish, as the Orthodox fasting guidelines are generally understood to permit crustaceans and shellfish throughout Great Lent. Oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, scallops, and other shellfish are all wonderful sources of protein.  One of the principles of many Paleo diets is “eating the animal from nose to tail.” My friend David McGee put it this way:

Those shellfish are roughly equivalent to organ meats of larger animals in their nutrients, and you are eating the whole animal, both plusses. Lots of Paleo diets will emphasize grass-fed meat, but don’t go into detail, so people go for the steak and skip the liver/organs, missing out on the most nutrient dense parts. Oysters, mussels, etc., are very nutrient dense, have the right kind of healthy fats, and may end up being better than the meat you would have picked in a fast-free period. Also, you can eat some of the shellfish raw or minimally prepared, which will preserve the nutrients that cooking can destroy in other meats you may be less inclined to eat raw.

Mussels, for example, are tasty, cheap, ethical, and contain plenty heart-healthy omega-3s. I can get them by the pound, frozen, for about the same price as chicken, for example, and you can play around with cooking them in delicious vegan sauces.

If you’re still concerned about protein beyond these suggestions, you may consider looking for a plant-based/vegan, gluten-free, low-glycemic protein supplement to imbibe once or twice a day.  Either that, or turn to worms and insects. I like to eat cricket-based Exo protein meal bars, and even had a meal bar monthly subscription for a time.

But seriously:

3. You’re probably not going to die if you miss out on optimal protein for a few weeks.

Our bodies are extremely adaptable. Most healthy people can go without protein for a while. You will feel different, but you can probably do it. We come from people who went days or weeks on end without eating animals. They didn’t starve—they just ate more plants. Intermittent fasting is part of our genetic make-up. The Orthodox fasting rules are “Paleo gold,” really. Embrace your ancestral roots and eat a little less.

As the Whole30 dietary reset famously put it:

It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard.

Going without as much protein? This “hard” demon is driven away only by prayer and fasting.

4. Finally, focus on the benefits of intermittent fasting.

As noted above, an important concept in the Paleo community is the concept of intermittent fasting. If we are going to emulate our ancestors, as the thinking goes, this may involve both food choices and food absences. We all descend from people who went days or weeks without eating, or at least without eating animals. Intermittent fasting is part of our genetic make-up, and it is part of the Orthodox tradition. (I.F. may be a little more challenging for women.)

Many in the Paleo community have adopted strategies like randomizing meal times, fasting for a number of hours, or a compressed eating window, to mimic this aspect of our genetic heritage. And considering we partially fast 180–200 days a year in our Orthodox tradition, well, I’d say that the Orthodox fasting rules naturally fall in line with this sort of thinking.

We don’t always have to eat, and our tradition teaches us to leave off meals sometimes, and pretty regularly. I say, let’s do it.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that this Paleo way of eating appears to completely omit wheat-based bread. Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we should not omit the Bread of Life. If you’re following these dietary principles, apart from allergies, there is no obvious dietary reason to forego reception of communion, and, for most, a little blessed bread on top of it is just fine.

Proceed with humility and repentance, and don’t get uptight at coffee hour, or at anyone’s house. As they say, “Keep your eyes on your own plate.” Don’t miss any great experiences, and don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers.

The canons, principles, and rubrics of the Church as they currently exist are entirely compatible with a nutritious, dairy-free, and mostly grain-free lifestyle.

Relax. Don’t worry. Eat Lenten and stay Paleo.

– – –

There are a number of helpful resources available for eating vegan/vegetarian and for optimal nutrition. I can’t endorse all content in the links above or below, but all of them are helpful for one reason or another.

Orthodox Resources

Vegan or Vegetarian Paleo Resources

Other Related Material

Just for Fun

Suggested Foods
Sometimes it’s more helpful to put the emphasis on what foods are available, rather than what is forbidden. I remember a Lent a few years ago where I caved and ate a lot of fried chicken because I spent all my time pondering fried chicken as “forbidden fruit.” Here is a handy list of fast-friendly foods, full of nutritional benefits.

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Lenten Journey through the New Testament

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We interrupt our regular format for this Scripture reading challenge!

Would you like to up your Scripture reading this Great Lent? Perhaps you haven’t spent much time in Scripture recently, and would like to get in and wrestle with the great foundations of the Orthodox faith.

Join us on this Lenten reading challenge! Seven chapters a day, six days a week, beginning on Clean Monday, with a day each week to rest or catch up, will put you finished with the entire New Testament early in Holy Week.

If you want to back off a little and go six chapters a day, that’s fine, it’s just that on Holy Saturday or on Pascha you’ll have a load of reading to do to finish up, and that’s a pretty busy weekend for us!

To help a bit, you may choose to listen to the Scriptures on audio. A British friend of mine has recorded the entire New Testament for free here. There are also a number of free phone apps that could help you along as well.

It’s as simple as reading seven chapters today, and then seven tomorrow, and continuing on until you finish. For those who like charts and lists, I’ve broken it down for you in more detail.

CLEAN WEEK: Matthew 1 – Mark 14
M – Mt. 1-7
T – Mt. 8-14
W – Mt. 15-21
TH – Mt. 22-28
F – Mk. 1-7
SA – Mk. 8-14

FEAST OF THE TRIUMPH: Mark 15 – John 16
M – Mk. 15-Lk. 5
T – Lk. 6-12
W – Lk. 13-19
TH – Lk. 20-Jn. 2
F – Jn. 3-9
SA – Jn. 10-16

ST. GREGORY PALAMAS: John 17 – Romans 9
M – Jn. 17-Acts 2
T – Acts 3-9
W – Acts 10-16
TH – Acts 17-23
F – Acts 24-Rom. 2
SA – Rom. 3-9

VENERATION OF THE CROSS: Romans 10 – Galatians 6
M – Rom. 10-16
T – Rom. 17-1 Cor. 7
W – 1 Cor. 8-14
TH – 1 Cor. 15-2 Cor. 5
F – 2 Cor. 6-2 Cor. 12
SA – 2 Cor. 13-Gal. 6

ST. JOHN OF THE LADDER: Ephesians 1 – Hebrews 6
M – Eph. 1-Phl. 1
T – Phl. 2-Col. 4
W – 1 Thes. 1-2 Thes. 2
TH – 2 Thes. 3-1 Tim. 6
F – 2 Tim. 1-Tit. 3
SA – Phm.-Heb. 6

ST. MARY OF EGYPT: Hebrews 7 – Revelation 14
M – Heb. 7-13
T – Jas. 1-1 Pet. 2
W – 1 Pet. 3-1 Jn. 1
TH – 1 Jn. 2-Jude
F – Rev. 1-7
SA – Rev. 8-14

PALM SUNDAY AND HOLY WEEK: Revelation 14 – 22
M – Rev. 15-22 (1 extra chapter)
T – Go to church!
W – Go to church!
TH – Go to church!
F – Go to church!
SA – Go to church!
PASCHA!

Kiss, Kiss, Kiss

Kisses-p1Orthodox people kiss everything: icons, relics, hands, cheeks, it doesn’t seem to matter, and few things are safe from an Orthodox person planting a smooch on it! We kiss hands of clergy, out of reverence for hands that have held God. We kiss icons (on the hands or feet, avoid kissing the face) to give honor to that holy person. We kiss each other because we want to foster love and friendship among the people of God.

Often, clergy and laity alike will come in for a kiss when you least expect it. Careful! Don’t kiss your priest on the lips (unless you’re married to him), and be prepared for returns: Greeks will usually want to kiss you once on each cheek, and Russians will go back for a third kiss. If you’re kissing cheeks, start with the right cheeks, then go for the left (try not to bump noses!), and brace yourself for one more on the right cheek if you’re in a Slavic community! It is not uncommon for such kisses to be imaginary kisses, where you basically just touch cheeks and make a smooching sound in the air. Depends on who is doing it, and likely has something to do with how afraid they are of your face hosting germs!

In the middle of the service, there is a “passing of the peace”—the priest says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” In recent centuries, the traditional Orthodox practice consisted of clergy around the altar kissing each other, but some parishes essentially have a brief meet-and-greet in the service. Visitors can probably get away with handshakes to those around them, but stick around long enough and people might start kissing you. In some parishes, one of several customary greeting are exchanged at this time, too.

Sidebar: In many Slavic parishes, it is customary for communicants to kiss the communion chalice after partaking of the Holy Eucharist. This is done out of great reverence for the chalice that holds the Author of Life. In most Byzantine parishes, however, they wouldn’t dream of doing this, also out of great reverence for the chalice that holds the Author of Life. It’s just one of those quirky differences in Orthodoxy!

Baptism and Conversion

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Coming into the Orthodox Church can be as exciting as it is bewildering for an adult convert. At times, inquirers find it difficult to get straight answer on what reception into the Orthodox Church is like. Put simply, one is received into the Orthodox Church by:

  • Confession of the Orthodox Faith
  • Baptism
  • Chrismation (the sealing of the Holy Spirit by anointing with oil)

All must confess the Orthodox Faith. Some will also need to baptized and/or chrismated. Sometimes a baptism, or a baptism and chrismation, are “grandfathered” in. This latter practice is sometimes done, for example, with the non-Chalcedonian “Oriental Orthodox” Christians, such as the Copts and Armenians.

The exact practice depends on the jurisdiction, bishop, or parish priest. But the Church does not simply leave a minister to his own devices. There are canonical and historical considerations, personal considerations, local considerations, and considerations of the bishop’s judgment that all factor into the manner of a person’s ultimate reception into the Orthodox Church. It is important to understand the way these several streams come together in the Church today.

There are several canons that govern reception of converts. Most famously, the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical council states clergy should chrismate certain professing Christians who hold non-Orthodox beliefs, such as Arians and “Macedonians” (among others), but only after they have renounced any false beliefs they once held. Whereas, Montanists, Sabellians, and Eunomians were to be received by confession, baptism, and chrismation after a period as a catechumen. There are similar canons in other councils, and once we factor in more controversial historical discussions from Orthodox luminaries such as St. Cyprian of Carthage and Blessed St. Augustine of Hippo, we have a rich tapestry of reception for the bishops to draw from.

The trouble is, there is no canon that says, “Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants who call themselves Lutheran or Reformed or Methodist, do this; but with Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and the so-called Churches of Christ, do that.” Complicating matters further, there is a good bit of difference between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, often even chasms of difference between Lutherans and other Lutherans, or Anglicans and other Anglicans. The Canons are a matter of wisdom and exegesis—an exegesis and wisdom that belongs almost entirely to the bishops as successors of the Apostles.

When people from the particular groups in question described in the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council were in view, it is safe to say they were received with a fairly strict application of the canon. Several hundred years later, at the Quinisext Council, the same basic canonical rules were repeated with minor expansion, and the canons of the Quinisext Council later enjoyed ecumenical standing.

Beyond that time, application of the Holy Canons varied. Many of the heretics listed in the Canons died out, and relations with the Western Church grew complicated due to linguistic, theological, and liturgical differences, and eventually the unprecedented Protestant Reformation arose in Western Europe.

By the time the Orthodox faith reached America in the late 18th century, the Slavic tradition almost universally received converts from other Christian confessions by chrismation. We know of saints in the last century who were received without rebaptism, such as St. Elizabeth the New Martyr (formerly a German Lutheran) and St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre (formerly a Byzantine-rite Roman Catholic). More recently, certain local churches have strengthened canonical applications as it relates to reception of converts (perhaps in part responding to what is perceived to be excesses of the ecumenical movement).

It is not surprising that in this modern era there is diversity of practice. Since the current cadre of converts to the Orthodox Church is not the same as it was 1600 years ago, the application of 1600-year-old canons will necessarily vary. It is the prerogative of the bishop to determine the best application of a canon, and by proxy, his priests are often left with discretion in such matters.

Despite minor variation from one bishop to another, the Orthodox Church has been quite consistent in its insistence on determining decisions based squarely on the Holy Canons.

[Editor’s note: The author of this Field Guide is not taking a position on the matter of baptizing converts, but simply trying to be faithful to the facts of historical and current practice.]

The Holy Canons

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The Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church are the plumb line by which the bishops have historically responded to pastoral and theological difficulties in the Church. Beginning very early in Church history, Church leaders responded to pastoral challenges by drawing up guidelines for Church life. These canons were written during important councils of assembled bishops.

Many canons cover conduct of clergy or specify areas of authority for certain episcopal sees, placing constraints on Church leadership to mitigate potential for abuse or scandal. Many canons also apply to non-clerics in the Church. Canons speak on matters as varied as sexuality and marriage, sacraments, excommunication, reception of converts, how clergy are to behave in public, and even matters of personal violence.

It is helpful to think of the Canons as the “house rules.” They are the standard for daily activity, but they are not necessarily strictly applied in every instance. That should not lead us to be dismissive of them, though. Just as good parents consider how to apply their own house rules with their children, so it is the bishop’s (and by proxy, a priest’s) job to determine when and how to apply applicable canons to particular pastoral situations.

Canons are not all created equal—some local canons never reached beyond a particular region, and were eventually phased out, while other canons went on to enjoy universal acceptance in the Church. Other canons were more specifically focused on the situations and cultural concerns of their time, finding application to a lesser extent in the Church today. It is not that these canons are ignored or abrogated, it is more that the very specific contexts in which they were introduced are absent, and should some similar context emerge again in the future, those canons would be relevant again. Until then, many simply don’t apply.

The manner of applying the Canons is typically categorized as akravia or oikonomia in popular Orthodox teaching. Akravia refers to a strict, to-the-T application of a rule. Oikonomia literally refers to the management of a household (Greek: oikos = household; nomos = law; or “economy” in English). It is used commonly to describe adjusting canonical requirements for pastoral considerations, with an individual’s salvation in mind.

St. Nicodemos the Hagorite (1749-1809) explains:

One kind of judgment is called strictness (akrivia); the other kind is called economy (oikonomia) with which the economists—the Greek meaning herein is “management of the household of the Spirit” to promote the salvation of souls—at times [go] with the one, and at times with the other.

The definitions and applications of oikonomia and akravia have varied through the centuries. The current usage is consistent with the harmonizing synthesis described by St. Nikodemos, and may refer to a departure from the norm for pastoral reasons for the salvation of those involved—this departure may more lenient or even more strict. St. Nikodemos is only one voice among many, but he is at least the most prominent voice when it comes to  canonical commentaries in English.

Access to the Canons by the laity in the age of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. Some modern Orthodox people have been openly critical of the Canons, and have used certain canons to mock Orthodoxy; others, who are more rigorist have used strict application of the Canons to criticize clergy of the Church (ironically, forbidden by the very Holy Canons they are seeking to preserve and defend) for not strictly applying certain canons. As we move toward greater administrative unity in Europe and America (and more in line with canonical norms), it is important that our bishops and clergy familiarize themselves with the Holy Canons, and that laity support them in this endeavor as we all grow into the future of the ancient Orthodox Faith.

There is always a danger of misapplying the Canons in a zeal to embrace the Canons. It may be something of a cliché to call this Pharisaical, but isn’t this what the spirit of the Pharisees was? They took legitimately enacted regulations of religious life and turned them into ends in themselves.

Certainly, the Canons should not be ignored willy-nilly, but the canonical corpus itself demonstrates that canons may be altered over time for various (good) reasons that don’t have anything to do with compromise. After all, the Church was not made for the Canons, but the Canons were made for the Church.

Holy Water

Holy Water-p1

The Orthodox Church teaches that God created all things good, and that sin has invaded this good world with sickness and death. And part of the mission of the Church is to restore all things by the grace of God.

This is why we have “holy water.” It is a setting apart of water as a kind of act of restoration. It’s mystically transforming water not into something magical, but it is restoring it to its Edenic dignity, and with this honor, it becomes another touch point of deeper communion with the Divine.

We use it to bless ourselves, our homes, our cars, our pets, our food—virtually anything! Some people will take a sip of holy water first thing in the morning, others will put a small amount in their food when they cook. Others may take a small bottle while traveling to discretely sprinkle around while praying for the area and the people. It may be used generously.

It is customary for clergy to set apart a sizable amount of water at Theophany (sometimes called Epiphany) in January, and the faithful will bring special containers to fill after the services. Many clergy will also bless a lake, river, or the ocean, and throw a cross in the water for the faithful (often children) to scramble after and retrieve. Some priests are very generous with the distribution of holy water and will use a large brush to fling droplets all over the faithful!

Should you need to dispose of holy water, it should be used to bless things, you should drink it, or you may pour it into the ground.

Fun fact: We do not need to set apart water from the Jordan River. By virtue of God being baptized in that water, we believe that is holy water forever. Many pilgrims will bring home holy water from the Jordan when they visit.

What about you? Tell us about how you’ve seen holy water used by the Orthodox clergy and faithful, and if you think we’ve left something important out!

Theology in Orthodoxy

Met. Hilarion-p1

It is not uncommon for the teaching ministry of the Orthodox Church to be described variously as dogma, doctrine, or theology. These words are occasionally used interchangeably, but there are specific differences between the words.

Theology is the broadest category, which refers to “the study of God” in general, based on divine revelation. Doctrine literally means “teaching,” but refers specifically to propositional teachings. Dogma originally meant “opinion,” but now is used to denote beliefs based firmly in divine revelation and taught as necessary to be believed by all Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox Church finds divine revelation in several sources, and sorts carefully through these sources of revelation to instruct the people of God.

Imagine the Church’s Tradition as a symphony orchestra with Jesus Christ as the Conductor. When we hear all the sections of the orchestra playing in proper tune and with the appropriate dynamics we will rightly appreciate the melody of faith and the harmony of hope. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes theological inquiry and how we may sort through sources of Tradition to find the appropriate balance.

The Holy Scriptures are an unconditional and indisputable authority. All Orthodox Christians accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unified messengers of Christ. The Old Testament is “a herald of the New Testament,” and the New Testament saturates the Tradition of the Church. The Scriptures are essential to the motif of Tradition.

Our liturgical tradition is an indispensible part of the orchestral motif of the Church’s Tradition. Liturgical texts have been refined over many centuries, led by the Holy Spirit, and are an indisputable source of teaching in our Church. We must distinguish between newer texts that have not been tested by time, and those texts which have led the Church for hundreds or thousands of years. These liturgies are a close second to Scripture.

The Ecumenical Creeds and Councils of the Church rank high with the canonical liturgical texts and Scriptures. The Councils deal with incredibly difficult matters, both of a pastoral nature and a doctrinal nature, articulated in creeds and carefully worded dogmatic definitions. The dogmatic statements of the Ecumenical Councils are paramount, and the canonical guidelines—while varied in their local application—share a similar authority. The Church retains the right to return to the decision of the Councils and modify them.

Doctrinal questions find further clarification in the testimony of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are an integral part of the symphonic harmony of the Orthodox Church. We are the heirs of the Fathers and should follow their consensus in all things. It is important to distinguish between personal opinions of the Fathers and those texts “which express general Church teaching.” Opinions that are not dogma, and are not condemned ecumenically, may be considered as personal opinions, but not pressed upon others as necessary to be believed.

Other ancient “teachers” of the Church are important, in a qualified way. It is important to consider the writings of other ancient teachers of the Church, but to make a distinction between these teachers and those the Church has designated as “Fathers.” For example, Tertullian and Origen have serious problems in some of their work, but remain important influences to consider.

We should also consider apocryphal literature of late antiquity, especially those pieces that have influenced the Church in some sense. Apocryphal books here, of course, not referring to those books of Scripture some have labeled as “apocrypha,” but rather to books like The Protoevangelion of James or The Gospel of Thomas. Some of these early writings ought to be rejected outright (such as Thomas), but those that are “reflected in the liturgical life or in hagiographic literature” of the Church have some standing for the Orthodox Christian. Where this literature contradicts the above received wisdom, we do not follow them.

Finally, other teachers should be considered, both ancient and modern. The teaching of the Church is revealed by God and unchanging, but that doesn’t mean its articulation is static. Fresh explanations abound in different periods of history, and since the “age of the Fathers” for Orthodoxy is not limited in scope, we remain attentive to the lead of the Holy Spirit and the fresh articulation of old truths.

Conclusion: Theology for the Orthodox Church is found in that beautiful symphony that is our Tradition, and only when all the sections play their appropriate parts at the right volume does the output sound appropriate. An over-emphasis on any one part of the symphony can only create discordant sounds, contrary to the appropriate execution of the piece by the great and holy Conductor, Jesus Christ.

Note: All quotes taken from Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2009), 205-208. Slight modifications made to capitalization for stylistic consistency. This is a modified form of a post that previously appeared at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.