Creed and Confessions in the Orthodox Church

Creed and Confessions in the Orthodox Church


Q: I am interested in the “synod of Jerusalem” held in the 17th century, and in a book called the “Diocletian Confession,” I think. It was the Orthodox response to the Protestant Reformation and discussed where Orthodoxy stood on the doctrines of the Reformation. I can’t find anything in print. Can you provide any information?

A: The document you are referring to is the Confession of Dositheos (Dositheus). We need, first, to understand the background of “Creed and Confessions in the Orthodox Church.”

Creed and Confessions

In Orthodoxy, the term “Creed” (“pistevo”) refers to a fully authorized, formal statement of the faith of the Church deriving from an Ecumenical Council. So, there is, strictly, only one Creed, or, by an extension of the term, two additional Creeds. “Confessions” are widely accepted decisions of local councils, or writings of illustrious hierarchs or theologians.

  1. Creeds: Broadly, these are the doctrinal decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils. Specifically, “The Creed” is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the only Creed used in Orthodox worship and instruction.

The so-called “Apostolic Creed” and the “Athanasian Creed” are considered at one and the same time of intrinsic historic value and in harmony with the deposit of faith, yet basically irrelevant to the present worship life of the Orthodox Church.

  1. Confessions of Faith: These “Confessions” or “Symbolic Books” arose particularly after the Great Schism and the rise of Protestantism, often with the purpose of counteracting either Roman or Protestant teaching. They have less authority than the Creed, but have great value as authentic witnesses of the Church’s belief. Among those commonly accepted are:
    1. General Orthodox Confessions of Faith: these include the Confession of Faith by Patriarch Gennadios (1455-6), the Confession of Faith of Mitrophanes Kritopoulos (1827), and the Orthodox Confession of Bishop Peter Moghila (1643).
    2. Confessions Dealing with Roman Catholicism: there are eleven of these, dating from 866 to 1948, detailing deviations of the Roman Church from Orthodox doctrine and practice.
    3. Confessions Dealing with Protestantism: there are nine such “Confessions” dated from the 1573-1581 discussions between Lutherans and Patriarch Jeremiah to the encyclical of the Council of Constance in 1836.

Modern documents of a confessional character derive chiefly from official statements related to the ecumenical movement.

The Confessions of Cyril Loukaris

The Confession of Dositheos is one of the responses to an unusual and very controversial document, the 1629 confession of faith of Cyril Loukaris, Patriarch of Constantinople. This document is Calvinistic in content and was repudiated and condemned by the Orthodox Church. Calvinism is the form of Protestantism that arose in Switzerland. In the USA, the Presbyterian Churches, Reformed Churches, and Southern Baptists are Calvinistic in doctrine and practice.

The Orthodox Confessions dealing with the Calvinist Protestant tradition were all acts of local councils which took place between 1638 and 1691. All were responses to the unorthodox confession of faith of Patriarch Cyril Loukaris (1571-1638). Cyril was strongly anti-Roman, and in struggling to combat Roman Catholic influence among the Orthodox, he depended heavily on the political support of the Protestant embassies in Constantinople. Thus obliged, he apparently signed a confession of faith which was almost completely Calvinist in content. The Confession of Loukaris is clearly based on the Institutes of John Calvin.

This so-called “Orthodox” confession of faith was published in Geneva in 1629 and became the basis of Calvinist proselytizing among the Orthodox, and, paradoxically also, a tool in the hands of the Roman Catholic missionaries at the expense of the Orthodox Church.

The consternation within the Orthodox Church caused by such a document cannot be overestimated. The Patriarch of the leading Orthodox Church was presented as espousing doctrines and beliefs of a Protestant movement in the West! Loukaris never repudiated his Eastern Confession of the Christian Faith. But also, he never publicly referred to it, nor defended it when attacked, nor attacked it, nor explained its existence. He died violently when in 1638, he was strangled by Turkish janissaries who cast his body into the Bosporus.

The Council of Jerusalem

Three months after his death in September of 1638, a Council met in Constantinople, condemning Cyril’s Confession as heretical. Since the confusion over the “Confession” of Cyril was not abating but was being complicated by his memory as a national martyr, two councils met, one in Constantinople in May of 1641 and another in Jassy in September of 1642. The results became known as The Acts of the Council of Constantinople and Jassy-1642. Finally, both Roman Catholics and Protestants asked the Orthodox to clarify their position. To do this, two councils were held in 1672, one in Constantinople and one in Jerusalem in which authoritative answers were given. The council in Constantinople issued a succinct Synodical Tome of about five pages.

More important was the Jerusalem Council. Patriarch Dositheos, on the occasion of the consecration of the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, called a council in which we have a final and complete refutation of the issue of the validity of the confession of Cyril, especially for the benefit of the non-Orthodox. Included in it was the first draft of an extremely important Orthodox Confession of Faith by Patriarch Dositheos. The Acts of the Jerusalem Council of 1672 are about 32 pages long.

Confession of Dositheos

The Confession of Faith by Dositheos, which was part of the Acts of the Jerusalem Council of 1672, has become one of the most important confessional documents of the period. Written carefully on the exact plan of the confession of Cyril, it presented the Orthodox position on every issue touched upon by Cyril’s work. Thus, externally, it was very much like the former, but in content it expressed the Orthodox faith. In eighteen “Oroi” (Definitions) and four “Questions,” the whole range of theological topics is treated. Repeatedly approved by Orthodox hierarchs and councils, the Confession of Dositheos is one of the most authoritative documents in the history of Orthodox-Protestant relationships.

The first edition, however, was partially dependent on Roman Catholic sources. By the third edition, published in 1690, nearly all of these influences were neutralized and a more patristic character was added. An Orthodox scholar, John Karimiris, characterizes it “as one of the most complete Orthodox expositions of the faith of that period, as well as an historic document of supreme significance.” It has been published in thirteen editions to date in its original Greek forms. The Confession of Dositheos is a document of about twenty-five pages.

To my knowledge, there is only one English translation: The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem, New York: AMS Press, 1969. Most of this response is excerpted and revised in: Stanley S. Harakas, “Creed and Confession in the Orthodox Church.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. 7, no. 4, 1970, pp. 721-743.

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About author

Fr. Stanley Harakas

The Rev. Stanley S. Harakas 1932-2020. Fr. Stanley was well known to Orthodox Christians for his engaging and clear writing style in works such as Toward Transfigured Life: The "Theoria" of Eastern Orthodox Ethic, Living the Faith: The "Praxis" of Eastern Orthodox Ethics, Health and Medicine in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, among many others. Fr. Stanley received his undergraduate and theology degrees from Holy Cross, and his Doctor of Theology degree from Boston University in 1965 (which would honor him as a “Distinguished Alumnus” twenty-one years later).   In 1966, Fr. Stanley began to teach at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, where he continued to have a life-long association with both Brookline campuses: as the first endowed chair of "Archbishop lakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology", as Dean of Hellenic College (1969-1975), and as Dean of Holy Cross for ten years (from 1970-1980). In the year 2000, Fr. Stanley received an Honorary Doctorate from our beloved school, which he saw through its accreditation, among many other milestones.   Additional Visiting Professorships included St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary (New York), Boston University School of Theology, Boston College Department of Theology, among many others. Memberships in professional societies were also numerous, including service President of the Orthodox Theological Society.   Fr. Stanley served as pastor of parishes in Lancaster, PA, Peabody, MA, Lexington, MA and Newburyport, MA. After retiring to what was then the Diocese of Atlanta in 1995, Fr. Stanley was called out of retirement to serve the then mission parish of Christ the Savior in Spring Hill, FL. As he had throughout his pastoral ministry, during his service to the parishioners of Christ the Savior, Fr. Stanley oversaw the expansion of a new sanctuary and parish hall.