Coming to Terms: Basic Vocabulary and Terminology of Eastern Orthodoxy




Liturgy (from the Greek for “public work” or “common action”) generally refers to the sacred action and corporate worship of the Church. It includes the Sacramental Mysteries as well as the daily, weekly, monthly, annual and Paschal services.

Back to top

Divine Liturgy

The Divine Liturgy specifically refers to the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Back to top


Vespers is the sunset or evening service of the Daily Office.

Back to top


Matins is the sunrise or morning service of the Daily Office.

Back to top

Sacramental Mystery

A Sacramental Mystery is one of the many services which help in the sanctification of time and space — something that transforms, transfigures the world as a saving act.

The Mysteries of initiation are baptism (Mt. 28:18-20; Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27) and chrismation (Acts 8:15-17; 1 John 2:27).

The Mystery of Holy Communion/Holy Eucharist wherein we participate in the Body of Christ (Mt. 26:26-28; Jn. 6:30-58; 1 Cor. 10:16, 11:23-31) .

The Mysteries of healing are unction (Lk. 9:1-6; Jas. 5:14-15) and penance (Jn. 20:22-23; 1 Jn. 1:8-9).

The Mystery of matrimony is crowning in marriage (Gen. 2:18-25; Eph. 5:22-33).

The Mystery of church order is ordination to the diaconate, the presbytery (priesthood) and episcopacy (Mk. 3:14; Acts 1:15-26, 6:1-6).

There are other Sacramental Mysteries of the church such as monastic tonsure, Christian burial, etc.

Back to top

Sign of the Cross

This is an action which one makes (usually on oneself) when we invoke the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is made with the right hand, forming two fingers together and three fingers together (Christ was divine and human; God is known in three Persons).

Back to top

Prayer of the Heart

This is the “Jesus Prayer” — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is a central element in Orthodox spirituality. St. Paul states that we should pray without ceasing; continually; constantly (1 Thess. 5:17) This prayer is one that the Orthodox in this manner.

Back to top


St. Peter states that we are partakers of divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). In restoring us to His Image and Likeness (which was lost at the Fall) God calls us to “come home” and share in the communion of Love that exists within the Holy Trinity. This concept of “divinization” means that our true and most authentic vocation as human persons is to become, by grace, what God is by nature and essence.

Back to top


Literally, “image” in Greek. Human persons are icons of God (Gen. 1:26-27). In Orthodox churches and homes we find 2-dimensional icons of wood, pigment, and sometimes gold leaf. These depict Christ in His humanity; the angels and saints; saving acts and events in the Bible and in salvation history, etc. The icon can also be of a verbal nature; hence, the Book of the Gospels or the Bible is a verbal icon. Icons are normally venerated, respected or honored by the Orthodox. Worship is accorded to God alone.

“I do not worship matter, but I worship Him Who became a material being for my salvation.”— St. John of Damascus

Back to top

Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;
And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the Resurrection of the dead,
And the Life of the age to come. Amen.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 A.D.)

The Nicene Creed was the statement of faith made by the participants of the First Ecumenical Council (at Nicea) in A.D. 325 (which defined the divinity of the Son of God), and expanded and ratified at the Second Ecumenical Council (at Constantinople) in 381 (which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit). Originally the composition of this creed was occasioned as a response to the heresy of Arianism (i.e., that “Jesus was a creature; the Son of God did not exist from all eternity; there was a time when he was not”) and the heresy of Appolinarianism (i.e., that “Christ had no human spirit– the spirit being replaced by the divine Logos // Word”).

It was soon affirmed as the statement of the Nicene Orthodox faith made by those who were to be baptized. It is proclaimed by the candidates for baptism at their enrollment into the (pre-baptismal) catechumenate. It is proclaimed by the assembled faithful at each celebration of the Divine Liturgy. It is proclaimed as a part of our daily prayers in the (nighttime) office of Compline. The Creed is called the “symbol of faith” — meaning that it is a gathering-together (sumbolon) of the articles of the faith.

Back to top

Ecumenical Council

The term “ecumenical” designates the whole inhabited world — or more specifically, the Roman and later Byzantine Empire. Based upon the Apostolic Council of Acts 15, seven general Councils which governed the life of the Church were called between 325 and 787. Decisions were made by reaching a consensus. They defined the Church’s teaching upon fundamental doctrines of the Faith: the Holy Trinity; the Incarnation, etc.

Although these issues are mysteries which lie beyond human understanding and language, definitions were drawn up at these Councils not so much as to explain the mystery of Divine revelation, but to exclude false ways of speaking and thinking about it. In order to prevent the faithful from deviating into error and heresy, the participants of the Councils simply “drew a fence” around the mystery and ratified various articles of faith. The participants of these Councils also clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church.

Back to top


A Greek term. Literally: “cyclical movement; mutual indwelling; round dance.”

In the patristic sense, and applied to Christ, it signifies that His two natures (divine and human) interpenetrate one another without separation and con-fusion (i.e., fusing together). Applied to the Holy Trinity, the term signifies the inner relationship between the Three — that each Person abides in the other two through an unceasing movement of mutual love. There is between them a timeless dialogue: from all eternity the Father says to the Son: “You are My Beloved Son” (Mk. 1:11); from all eternity the Son replies, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15; Gal 4:6); from all eternity the Holy Spirit sets His seal upon the interchange. (See the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham — Gen. 18.)

Applied to the human person, the term signifies that we (created in the image and likeness of God) are called to image-forth the mutual love that passes unceasingly between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our vocation as human persons is to be transformed by the grace of God into living icons of divine “perichoresis.”

Back to top

Salvation, Redemption and Justification

Salvation includes a process of growth whereby the sinner is transfigured more fully into the image and according to the likeness of God the Holy Trinity (in cooperation/synergia with God’s grace in living faith, righteous works and rejection of evil: see 2 Cor. 6:1; Phil. 2:12-13; Jas. 2:14-26).

In Baptism our bodies became “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Our bodies and souls are sanctified by means of the sacramental life of the Church (baptism, eucharist, etc.). God is no longer exterior to us; He is found within. Through His abiding presence we receive His saving grace. Redemption is the deliverance of humanity from sin and death by Christ: He assumed our humanity, He conquered sin and death and releases those who are in captivity to the evil one, He unites humanity to God (Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:15).

Justification is the act whereby God forgives our sins and begins to transform us into righteous persons. Nobody can earn justification by works of righteousness. It is the gift of God to those who respond to the Gospel with faith.

Back to top


Greek: Episcopos. “Overseer” who is the eucharistic celebrant and arch-pastor of a local community. In the New Testament there is no clear distinction between the offices of bishop and elder (Acts 20:17, 28), both of which function in a leadership capacity. The Twelve Apostles were the first to hold this office (in Acts 1:20 the apostolic “office” is literally translated “episcopate”). However, by the mid- to late first century, the church began to reserve the title bishop for the men of spiritual qualification who were consecrated to follow the Apostles in their office of oversight. (See 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Acts 1:15-26; 14:23)

Back to top


Greek: Presbyteros. “Elder,” now generally called “priest” due to the development of the anglicization of the word “presbyter” to “prester” to “priest.” In the New Testament the three orders of ordained ministry of the Church are Bishop, Elder, and Deacon. (See references above, as well as Acts 14:23; 15:4-23; 1 Tim. 5:17-19; Titus 1:5) The Christian priesthood is not a throwback to the Old Testament priesthood of Melchizdek or the priesthood (kohanim) of the Tabernacle/Temple. The Orthodox Christian ordained priest (as opposed to the royal priesthood of the laity, or all believers: 1 Pet. 2:4-10) is a minister of the New Covenant which supersedes the Old.

Back to top


Greek: Diavkonoi/diakonos. Originally, “servant” or “minister,” who was one of the seven ordained to assist the Apostles with the temporal affairs of the Church (see Acts. 6:1-7). A deacon also serves/assists in a liturgical and pastoral capacity. In the early Church, women served as deaconesses. (See Rom. 16:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13.)

Back to top


Literally, “God-bearer.” Because the Lord Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, Mary is called the Mother of God (in the flesh). This is to profess our faith that in the Incarnation, God was in her womb — that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. The Archangel Gabriel called Mary “blessed among women” (Lk. 1:28). Elizabeth called Mary “blessed,” and the “mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1:42-43). Mary herself, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed that all generations shall call her blessed (Lk. 1:48). In A.D. 431, at the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus) the Church proclaimed the title of Theotokos for the Virgin Mary, for if it was not God who dwelt in Mary’s womb, there is no salvation for humanity.

Back to top


This term refers to the ongoing life of the Church throughout history and throughout the world “in the Holy Spirit” — it also refers to the ongoing life of the Holy Spirit “in the Church” throughout history and throughout the world.

Unlike those instances whereby the Savior, together with Saints Peter and Paul refer to, admonish against, and condemn the Pharisaic or Gnostic “traditions of men” (i.e., Mt. 15:2-9 // Mk. 7:3-13; Mt. 23:1-3, 13-32; Col. 2:8; Gal. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:18), the use of the word Tradition (note the use of an upper-case “T” to make the necessary distinction) refers to “that which is handed down” — received; delivered (either written or orally) within the inner life of the Church (i.e., 1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:1; Gal. 1:9; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2; 3:14).

The succession of the Apostolic tradition has come down to us today by means of the Holy Scriptures, the preaching, the teaching, the life, the witness, and the worship of the Church. It is this Tradition (remember, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church // the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit) that keeps us in continuity with the apostolic community.

Back to top

“Scripture vs. Tradition”

This juxtaposition came from the Protestant reform movement in reaction against the Latin formula of “scriptura et traditio” which distinguished scripture as something different, detached, distinct and added as a principal related externally to tradition — and conversely, tradition as something different, detached, distinct and added as a principal related externally to scripture.

This is a purely “western” Christian argument, stemming from the meaning of the word traditio. It appears that in the Latin West, in this term was seen to denote a reality other than that of scripture, and that each alone was somehow insufficient without the other. In the Orthodox Church, where the word paradosis, translated into English as “tradition”) has a different meaning, the two are not seen juxtaposed in opposition (as in the Protestant world) or even paired (as in the Roman Catholic world). Doing so gives each of the terms “scripture” and “tradition” a separateness unto itself. This appears to the Eastern Christian as an artificial antagonism produced in the West.

In the Orthodox Church, Scripture, Tradition and Biblical Authority are all interrelated. They have an organically inseparable relationship. The concept of an difficult internal relationship between them as a whole is necessary for an Orthodox Christian understanding. If we mean by “Holy Tradition” the ongoing Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the ongoing Life of the Church in the Holy Spirit, then we can be bold enough to say in this context that the Holy Scriptures are even part of Holy Tradition.

There was an ongoing Life of the Holy Spirit in the Church/Life of the Church in the Holy Spirit between the Day of Pentecost (i.e., A.D. 33) and the moment St. Paul wrote his first Epistle (i.e., ca. A.D. 49-50), or the first Gospel began to be penned (i.e., anywhere from A.D. 50 on). And it was within this Holy Tradition that the canon of Holy Scripture was eventually formed, designated, and affirmed. We could not say this if the notion of tradition/traditions means that something is merely of human or demonic origin — Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:18; etc.

Back to top