The Meaning of the Word “Orthodox”
Many of us have had the experience of being mistaken as Jewish because we call ourselves Orthodox. This misunderstanding happens frequently, and it seems to be rare when someone understands that the word orthodox is more commonly associated within a Christian, rather than Jewish, context. Because so many people misunderstand, allow this explanation of the meaning, use and history of the word.
As mentioned in a previous article, the word orthodox derives from two sources in the Greek language. Those are the words orthos and doxa. Orthos means “straight” or “correct.” Doxa originally meant “belief,” though in the New Testament usage it assumed the meaning of “glory,” as in “worship” or “give God glory.” Combine the two words and orthodox means something along the lines of “correct belief,” or “correct worship.” In Orthodox Christian usage, the word actually refers to both concepts simultaneously since faith and worship are two aspects of the same Truth.
Historically, the word has been used to refer to traditional belief patterns within a particular religious body as they are opposed to antithetical belief patterns. For example, one who believes in the classic Christian definition of Christ, that is, that He is true God and true man, two natures in one Person, holds to orthodox Christology. One who claims to be a Christian yet who denies one or both of these premises holds what is called heterodox Christology [hetero meaning “other than”]. Clearly, the word orthodox has a contextual meaning of “correct faith.”
In the early Christian centuries orthodox and catholic were words used to describe the Church and its faith. Orthodox meant “correct faith” and Catholic [meaning something akin to the “whole house”] referred to that correct faith being believed by the entire Church and pertinent [universal] to all of humanity. When Christianity divided in 1054 the Eastern portion of the Church maintained the word orthodox to define itself, and today Orthodox refers primarily to that body of Christians. The Orthodox Church still thinks of itself as Catholic but the word Orthodox is its primary focus, in terms of self-identification. In many contemporary Christian circles, we are known as the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It might be noted that the word orthodox was used by Christians long before the Jewish people began any official use of it. The first formal Christian use of the word is found in the writings of St. Hegessippus, a Christian historian who wrote around 170 A.D. Since Gnosticism had become popular as an aberrant form of Christianity, St.
Hegessippus described the Christian Faith of the Church of Corinth as being orthodox. The Christians of Corinth held to the correct faith, he argued, rather than to the heterodoxy of the Gnostics, which denied the humanity of Christ. St. Hegessippus gives us the first example of traditional usage, and Christians have used the word in this manner ever since.
In contrast to Christian usage the first known Jewish use of the word, referring to a particular group within Judaism, did not occur until 1806. It was used to identify those who practiced traditional Jewish religious traditions as opposed to those who favored expressions of Judaism affected by the Enlightenment. The result has been the identity of a “denomination” within Judaism known as Orthodox Judaism, and of whom most people think when they hear the word. One might note that Jewish people [of this branch of Judaism] usually speak of being “Orthodox Jews” or simply “Jewish” when they identify themselves to Gentiles.
The word orthodox is clearly NOT the sole possession of any religious group, and it is even used in secular circles. However, because of its long standing use among Christians and because of the particular way in which Jewish people use it, one can usually tell what is meant by careful listening. You can be assured that if someone identifies himself simply as Orthodox, or says he is a member of the Orthodox CHURCH, he is referring to being Christian. In addition, the word identifies for us the essential purpose of the Church; it is to experience, maintain and hand down unchanged the correct belief and worship of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.