Doctrine and Ethics

In Orthodox belief, the teaching of the church is found in the Old and New Testaments, the writings of the church fathers, and all aspects of the synodical, canonical, liturgical, and spiritual tradition of faith as lived, experienced, and reflected upon in the consciousness of the church, for which the general name "holy tradition" is used.

The Eastern Orthodox church understands ultimate reality to be the Holy Trinity, or God who is a triune unity of persons: the Father, source of the other two fully divine persons; the Son, forever born of the Father; and the Holy Spirit, forever proceeding from the Father. Thus, ultimate uncreated and uncontingent reality is a community of divine persons living in perpetual love and unity.

This divine reality created all else that exists, visible and invisible, as contingent reality. Human beings are created as a composite of body and spirit, as well as in the "image and likeness" of the Holy Trinity. "Image" refers to those characteristics that distinguish humanity from the rest of the created world: intelligence, creativity, the ability to love, self-determination, and moral perceptivity. "Likeness" refers to the potential open to such a creature to become "God-like." This potential for deification, or theosis, has been lost through the choice of human beings to separate themselves from communion with God and their fellow human beings; that is to say, sin is a part of the human condition. Though weakened and distorted, the "image" remains and differentiates human existence from the rest of creation.

The work of redemption and salvation is accomplished by God through the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity who took on human nature (except for sin) in the person of Jesus Christ. He taught, healed, gave direction, and offered himself upon the cross for the sins of humanity, and conquered the powers of death, sin, and evil through his resurrection from the dead. This saving work, accomplished for all humanity and all creation, is appropriated by each human person through faith and baptism, and manifested in continuous acts of self-determination in communion with the Holy Spirit. This cooperation between the human and divine in the process of growth toward the fulfillment of God-likeness is referred to as synergy.

The locus for this appropriation is the Church— specifically, its sacramental and spiritual life. The sacraments, or "mysteries," use both material and spiritual elements, as does the life of spiritual discipline known as "struggle" and "asceticism" (agona and askesis). Both foster a communion of love between the Holy Trinity and the human being, among human beings, and between humans and the nonhuman creation, making possible continuous growth toward God-likeness, which is full human existence.

Though in this earthly life growth toward Godlikeness can be continuous, it is never completed. In the Eastern Orthodox worldview, the eternal Kingdom of God provides a transcendent referent for everything. The Kingdom is not only yet to come in the "last days," but is now a present reality through Christ's resurrection and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Within this spiritual reality, the goal of human life is understood to be an ongoing process of increasing communion with God, other persons, and creation. This forms the matrix for Orthodox Christian ethics and provides it with the materials and perspectives for articulating the "ought" dimensions of the church's teaching (Mantzaridis).

Among the more important aspects of these teachings for bioethics are (1) the supreme value of love for God and neighbor; (2) an understanding that sees nature fallen but also capable of providing basic norms for living through a foundational and elementary natural moral law; (3) the close relationship of material and spiritual dimensions of human existence and their appropriate relationship and integration; (4) the capacity for self-determination by human beings to make moral decisions and act on them; and (5) the criterion of movement toward God-likeness—all within a framework that is both this and other-world focused.

In practice, ethical norms are arrived at in holy tradition and by contemporary Orthodox ethicists by defining moral questions within this context of faith in a search for ethical guidelines that embody the good, the right, and the fitting (Harakas, 1983).

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