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The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos "having the right opinion", from orthos ("right", "true", "straight") + doxa ("opinion" or "praise", related to dokein, "to think"), is typically used to mean adhering to the accepted or traditional and established faith, especially in religion.

The term did not conventionally exist with any degree of formality (in the sense in which it is now used) prior to the advent of Christianity in the Greek-speaking world, though the word does occasionally show up in ancient literature in other, somewhat similar contexts. Orthodoxy is opposed to heterodoxy ("other teaching"), heresy and schism. People who deviate from orthodoxy by professing a doctrine considered to be false are most often called heretics or radicals, while those who deviate from orthodoxy by removing themselves from the perceived body of believers are called schismatics. The distinction in terminology pertains to the subject matter; if one is addressing corporate unity, the emphasis may be on schism; if one is addressing doctrinal coherence, the emphasis may be on heresy.

Apostasy, for example, is a violation of orthodoxy that takes the form of abandonment of the faith, a concept largely unknown before the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Rome on February 27, 380 by Theodosius I, see also First seven Ecumenical Councils. A lighter deviation from orthodoxy than heresy is commonly called error, in the sense of not being grave enough to cause total estrangement, while yet seriously affecting communion. Sometimes error is also used to cover both full heresies and minor errors.

The concept of orthodoxy is the most prevalent and even inherently pervasive in nearly all forms of organized monotheism, but orthodox belief is not usually overly emphasized in polytheistic or animist religions. Often there is little to no concept of dogma, and varied interpretation of doctrine and theology is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged within certain contexts. Syncretism, for example, plays a much wider role in non-monotheistic (and particularly, non-scriptual) religion. The prevailing governing idea within polytheism is most often orthopraxy ("right practice") rather than "right belief".

Orthodox groups

Some groups have laid claim to the word orthodox as part of their titles, most commonly in order to differentiate themselves from other, 'heretical' movements. Orthodox Judaism focuses on a strict adherence to what it sees as the correct interpretation of the Oral Torah. Within Christianity, the term occurs in the Eastern Orthodox, Western Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches as well as in Protestant denomination like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


In classical Armenian usage, the term orthodox refers to a set of doctrines which gained prominence in the 4th century AD. The Roman Emperor Constantine I initiated a series of ecumenical councils (see also First seven Ecumenical Councils) to try to standardize what was then a relatively disorganized religion. The most significant of these early debates was that between the Homoousian doctrine of Athanasius and Eustathius (Trinitarianism) and the Heteroousian doctrine of Arius and Eusebius (Arianism). The Homoousian doctrine gradually won out in the Roman Church and came to be referred to as orthodoxy in most Christian contexts, since this became the viewpoint of the majority (although, of course, many non-Trinitarian Christians still object to this terminology). Following the Great Schism in the Roman Catholic Church, both the Western and Eastern churches continued to consider themselves uniquely orthodox and catholic. Over time the Western church gradually identified itself more with the "Catholic" label and Westerners gradually associated the "Orthodox" label more with the Eastern church (in some other languages the "Catholic" label is not necessarily identified with the Western church). In addition to the Eastern Orthodox Church, there also exists a separate Oriental Orthodox communion, as well as other smaller communions that are commonly associated with the "Orthodox" label.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches uses the original form of the Nicene Creed created at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, in contrast to the Roman Catholic church, which uses the Nicene creed with the addition of the phrase 'and the Son' (see Filioque clause). This change is one of many causes for the Great Schism formalized in 1054 by simultaneous proclamations of "Anathema" from the leadership of the Orthodox Churches in the East and the Bishop of Rome (Pope) in the West. This emphasis on the use of the original "creed" is shared today by all Eastern Orthodox churches.

The changes brought about in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) have made a gradual "rapprochement" between Rome and Orthodoxy at the official level. Likewise, the simultaneous revocation of the the anathemas of 1054 should not be underestimated in "restoring mutual trust" and a recognition that there is "a vast area of common ground that the two sides share." Regarding dogma, Orthodox often feel that "Latin scholastic theology makes too much use of legal concepts, and relies too heavily on rational categories and syllogistic argumentation, while the Latins for their part have frequently found the more mystical approach of Orthodoxy too vague and ill-defined." There are also "psychological barriers [in Eastern Europe] that need to be overcome." For example, in 2008, Patriarch Alexie of All Russia complained about the presence of Catholic clerics and missionaries in Russia, noting," "If they consider Orthodoxy to have just as much the grace of God and salvation as Catholicism, then what is the point of persistent attempts to convert people to the other faith?" (The Russian Church, for example, in a gesture of good will, does not demand that Roman Catholics "receive Chrismation" when they convert to Orthodoxy, only make a simple profession of faith ("though Anglican and other Protestants are always received by Chrismation.") The biggest difference, however, is Orthodoxy's "understanding of the Papal ministry within the Church." For their part, the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches do not consider the Eastern Orthodox Church to be schismatic and heretical, only "defective" for not accepting the universal jurisdiction of the See of Rome. At the same time, Rome's document Dominus Iesus calls Orthodox Churches "true particular churches": "an unusual use of 'true' referring to any but the Catholic Church." Needless to say, Rome recognizes that Orthodoxy has valid sacraments and full apostolic succession. Recent declarations between the two churches since 2,000 have also brought the two churches even closer together. For example, a joint commission of Orthodox and Catholic theologians agreed that the Pope has primacy over all bishops, though disagreements about the extent of his authority still continue, see also Papal primacy. The Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue reached the agreement in a meeting in Ravenna, Italy in October 2006. The Orthodox believe that among the five Patriarchs and ancient Patriarchates (i.e., Romemarker, Constantinoplemarker, Alexandriamarker, Antiochmarker, and Jerusalemmarker), a special place belongs to Rome, a "primacy of honor," not of supremacy. However, to disassociate the "See of Rome" from this "equalisation," Benedict XVI recently dropped the title "Patriarch of the West," seeing the designation as an attempt to Orientalize Western ecclesiology. However, Benedict still considers the five Sees, dating back to the first millenium, to be "Sister Churches within a certain ecumenical context.

Confusingly, the term "Western Orthodox" is sometimes used to refer to Uniate Catholic churches in communion with the Roman See, also known as Eastern Catholic Churches. Today "Western Orthodox" will probably refer to groups of apostolic Orthodox Christians in the United Kingdommarker, United Statesmarker and perhaps smaller numbers in Denmarkmarker, Finlandmarker, Francemarker, Germanymarker and the Netherlandsmarker, who wish to be Orthodox and yet want a western and Latin rite. It can also refer to the Orthodox churches that have implemented a Western rite such as the Antiochian Orthodox church.

In Ukrainemarker and Romaniamarker there are Uniates called Greek Catholics who have the Byzantine rite, but accept the primacy of the Pope, and so are called Byzantine Catholics. Also, in Lebanonmarker and Syriamarker are groups called Maronites and Melkites in a similar situation. Their numbers are small when compared to the size of the Orthodox Churches – though the Melkite church numbers over a million faithful.

The term Oriental Orthodoxy is used to refer to non-Chalcedonian eastern Christians, as opposed to Christians of Eastern Orthodox Churches, who accept the Council of Chalcedon (See Ecumenical Councils) and generally worship according to the Byzantine Rite. They have been traditionally referred to as Monophysite. They are found in Egyptmarker, Ethiopiamarker, some parts of Syria, Iraqmarker and Iranmarker, Armeniamarker, and southern Indiamarker in Kerala Statemarker. They accept only the first three of the ecumenical councils. In the last century there has been some rapproachment between these and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, particularly in Syria. There have been claims after dialogue, that really the differences have been of phraseology all along, and a simple misunderstanding of what each church holds. This is not entirely satisfactory to many in Eastern Orthodoxy, and it is not considered in each church's competence to use a General Holy Synod to bring about communion. These Eastern Orthodox Christians hold that it would take another Great and Holy Council of every Eastern Orthodox Bishop together to reverse the Anathema, and this raises problems of its own.

Some religious groups are considered by all of the aforementioned to be unorthodox (or even arbitrarily cults, as they are less commonly called in Protestant circles), including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, and some of the more radical forms of liberal theology.

Inside each of these ecclesiastical communities there are issues that correspond to estrangement or refinements of perceived orthodoxy. For example, the Roman See often issues recommendations as to what practices it considers orthodox so as to curb excesses or deficiencies by its prelates. Some evangelicals are pursuing innovations that other, more conservative evangelicals consider unorthodox and term "neo-evangelical," "neo-pentecostal," or "fringe Charismatic."

Critical uses

In certain intellectual contexts, the terms "orthodox" and "orthodoxy" are used in an unfavorable sense, similar to that associated with "dogma" and "dogmatic". The implication is that orthodox beliefs are not rationally justified but are imposed by some overseeing body, such as the dominant group in an academic discipline. For example, the term orthodox economics is commonly used by critics to refer to the dominant approach to economics, which its supporters would more commonly call mainstream economics. In this sense, orthodox economics is commonly counterposed to radical or heterodox economics.

See also


  1. orthodox. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: March 03, 2008).
  2. orthodox. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: March 03, 2008).
  3. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1993), 314,15.
  4. Ronald Roberson, "Russian Steps to unity," The Tablet, 13 December, 2008, 15.
  5. Ware, 279.
  6. Ware, 316.
  7. Francis Sullivan, "The Impact of Dominus Iesus on Ecumenism," America, 28 October, 2000, 8.
  8. Catholics and Orthodox agree on primacy of pope
  9. Timothy Wise, Orthodoxy (London: Peguin Books, 1993), 27.
  10. John Allen, "The 'Patriarch of the West' Retires," The National Catholic Reporter April 7, 2006, 21.
  11. Joseph Ratzinger, "Sister Churches," The Tablet 9 September, 2000, 1205.
  12. The Canadian Encyclopedia - Economics, Radical
  13. UNSW School of Economics - The Society of Heterodox Economists

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