The following is an “abridged” version (est. 4,500 words) of Saint Filaret’s catechism. It is probably the easiest-to-read primer for western people to understand Orthodox Christianity. The purpose is to help Orthodox Catholic Christians, and those interested in Orthodoxy, to get a modern and accessible discussion of the Christian faith–addressing hot button issues such as the atonement, faith-and-works, and etcetera. I selected passages which I felt were under-appreciated or important for evangelistic purposes.
3. What is necessary in order to please God and to save one’s own soul?
In the first place, a knowledge of the true God, and a right faith in him; in the second place, a life according to faith, and good works.
5. Why must a life according to faith, and good works, be inseparable from this faith?
Because, as the Word of God testifies, Faith without works is dead James ii. 20.
15. Can not man, then, have any knowledge of God without a special revelation from him?
Man may have some knowledge of God by contemplation of those things which he has created; but this knowledge is imperfect and insufficient, and can serve only as a preparation for faith, or as a help towards the knowledge of God from his revelation.
18. Is there any sure repository of holy tradition?
All true believers united by the holy tradition of the faith, collectively and successively, by the will of God, compose the Church; and she is the sure repository of holy tradition, or, as St. Paul expresses it, The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1 Tim. iii. 15.
St. Irenæus writes thus:
We ought not to seek among others the truth, which we may have for asking from the Church; for in her, as in a rich treasure-house, the Apostles have laid up in its fullness all that pertains to the truth, so that whosoever seeketh may receive from her the food of life. She is the door of life. (Adv. Hæres. lib. iii. c. 4.)
21. Which is the more ancient, holy tradition or holy Scripture?
The most ancient and original instrument for spreading divine revelation is holy tradition. From Adam to Moses there were no sacred books. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself delivered his divine doctrine and ordinances to his Disciples by word and example, but not by writing. The same method was followed by the Apostles also at first, when they spread abroad the faith and established the Church of Christ. The necessity of tradition is further evident from this, that books can be available only to a small part of mankind, but tradition to all.
22. Why, then, was holy Scripture given?
To this end, that divine revelation might be preserved more exactly and unchangeably. In holy Scripture we read the words of the Prophets and Apostles precisely as if we were living with them and listening to them, although the latest of the sacred books were written a thousand and some hundred years before our time.
23. Must we follow holy tradition, even when we possess holy Scripture?
We must follow that tradition which agrees with the divine revelation and with holy Scripture, as is taught us by holy Scripture itself.
24. Why is tradition necessary even now?
As a guide to the right understanding of holy Scripture, for the right ministration of the sacraments, and the preservation of sacred rites and ceremonies in the purity of their original institution.
33. How do St. Cyril and St. Athanasius enumerate the books of the Old Testament?
As follows: 1, The book of Genesis; 2, Exodus; 3, Leviticus; 4, the book of Numbers; 5, Deuteronomy; 6, the book of Jesus the son of Nun; 7, the book of Judges, and with it, as an appendix, the book of Ruth; 8, the first and second books of Kings, as two parts of one book; 9, the third and fourth books of Kings; 10, the first and second books of Paralipomena; 11, the first book of Esdras, and the second, or, as it is entitled in Greek, the book of Nehemiah; 12, the book of Esther; 13, the book of Job; 14, the Psalms; 15, the Proverbs of Solomon; 16, Ecclesiastes, also by Solomon; 17, the Song of Songs, also by Solomon; 18, the book of the Prophet Isaiah; 19, of Jeremiah; 20, of Ezekiel; 21, of Daniel; 22, of the Twelve Prophets.
34. Why is there no notice taken in this enumeration of the books of the Old Testament of the book of the Wisdom of the son of Sirach, and of certain others?
Because they do not exist in the Hebrew.
35. How are we to regard these last-named books?
Athanasius the Great says that they have been appointed of the Fathers to be read by proselytes who are preparing for admission into the Church.
69. What is an œcumenical Council?
An assembly of the Pastors and Doctors of the Catholic Church of Christ, as far as possible, from the whole world, for the confirmation of true doctrine and holy discipline among Christians.
84. Can we know the very essence of God?
No. It is above all knowledge, not of men only, but of angels.
85. How does holy Scripture speak on this point?
The Apostle Paul says, that God dwelleth in the light, which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see. 1 Tim. vi. 16.
125. How does the orthodox Church speak on this point? (Predestination)
In the exposition of the faith by the Eastern Patriarchs it is said: As he foresaw that some would use well their free will, but others ill, he accordingly predestined the former to glory, while the latter he condemned. (Art. iii.)
160. Why did it bring death to man to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Because it involved disobedience to God’s will, and so separated man from God and his grace, and alienated him from the life of God.
162. How could Adam and Eve listen to the devil against the will of God?
God of his goodness, at the creation of man, gave him a will naturally disposed to love God, but still free; and man used this freedom for evil.
166. What is the death which came from the sin of Adam?
It is twofold: bodily, when the body loses the soul which quickened it; and spiritual, when the soul loses the grace of God, which quickened it with the higher and spiritual life.
168. Why did not the first man only die, and not all, as now?
Because all have come of Adam since his infection by sin, and all sin themselves. As from an infected source there naturally flows an infected stream, so from a father infected with sin, and consequently mortal, there naturally proceeds a posterity infected like him with sin, and like him mortal.
191. What is there further to be remarked of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Most Holy Mother of God?
This: that since this birth was perfectly holy and void of sin, it was also without pain; for it was among the penalties of sin that God ordained Eve in sorrows to bring forth children. (J. Damasc. Theol. lib. iv. cap. 14, 6.)
197. How have we salvation by Christ’s doctrine?
When we receive it with all our heart, and walk according to it. For, as the lying words of the devil, received by our first parents, became in them the seed of sin and death; so, on the contrary, the true Word of Christ, heartily received by Christians, becomes in them the seed of a holy and immortal life. They are, in the words of the Apostle Peter, born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.
208. How does the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross deliver us from sin, the curse, and death?
That we may the more readily believe this mystery, the Word of God teaches us of it, so much as we may be able to receive, by the comparison of Jesus Christ with Adam. Adam is by nature the head of all mankind, which is one with him by natural descent from him. Jesus Christ, in whom the Godhead is united with manhood, graciously made himself the new almighty Head of men, whom he unites to himself through faith. Therefore as in Adam we had fallen under sin, the curse, and death, so we are delivered from sin, the curse, and death in Jesus Christ. His voluntary suffering and death on the cross for us, being of infinite value and merit, as the death of one sinless, God and man in one person, is both a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God, which had condemned us for sin to death, and a fund of infinite merit, which has obtained him the right, without prejudice to justice, to give us sinners pardon of our sins, and grace to have victory over sin and death.
209. Was it for us all, strictly speaking, that Jesus Christ suffered?
For his part, he offered himself as a sacrifice strictly for all, and obtained for all grace and salvation; but this benefits only those of us who, for their parts, of their own free will, have fellowship in his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. Phil. iii. 10.
210. How can we have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ?
We have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ through a lively and hearty faith, through the Sacraments, in which is contained and sealed the virtue of his saving sufferings and death, and, lastly, through the crucifixion of our flesh with its affections and lusts.
264. On what is grounded the rule of the Church upon earth to invoke in prayer the saints of the Church in heaven?
On a holy tradition, the principle of which is to be seen also in holy Scripture. For instance, when the Prophet David cries out in prayer, O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel our fathers, he makes mention of saints in aid of his prayer, exactly as now the Orthodox Church calls upon Christ our true God, by the prayers of his most pure Mother and all his saints. See 1 Chron. xxix. 18.
Cyril of Jerusalem, in his explanation of the divine Liturgy, says: We make mention also of those who are before departed, first, of the Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs, that by their entreaties and intercession God may receive our prayers. (Cat. Myst. v. c. 9.)
Basil the Great, in his sermon on the day of the Forty Holy Martyrs, says: Whoever is afflicted has recourse to the Forty, and whoever is joyful runs to the same; the one that he may find relief from his sorrows, the other that he may keep his happiness. Here the pious wife is to be seen praying for her children; another asks the return of her absent husband; another the restoration of health to the sick. Yes; let your petitions be with the Martyrs.
265. Is there any testimony of holy Scripture to the mediatory prayer of the saints in heaven?
The Evangelist John, in the Revelation, saw in heaven an angel, to whom was given much incense, that he should offer it, by the prayers of all saints, upon the golden altar which was before the throne; and the smoke of the incense ascended up by the prayers of the saints out of the hands of the angel before God. Rev. viii. 3, 4.
266. Is there any testimony of holy Scripture to beneficent apparitions of saints from heaven?
The Evangelist St. Matthew relates that after the death of our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves, after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Matt. xxvii. 52, 53. And since a miracle so great could not be without some adequate end, we must suppose that the saints which then arose appeared for this, that they might announce the descent of Jesus Christ into hell, and his triumphal resurrection; and so move men born in the Church of the Old Testament to pass over the more readily into that of the New, then opened.
267. What testimonies are there to confirm us in the belief that the saints, after their departure, work miracles through certain earthly means?
The second (fourth in the Greek) book of Kings testifies that by touching the bones of the Prophet Elisha a dead man was raised to life. 2 (4) Kings xiii. 21.
The Apostle Paul not only in his own immediate person wrought healings and miracles, but the same was done also in his absence by handkerchiefs and aprons taken from his body. Acts xix. 12. By this example we may understand that the saints, even after their deaths, may in like manner work beneficently through earthly means, which have received from them holy virtue.
Gregory the Divine, in his first discourse against Julian, says: Thou wast not abashed by the sacrifices offered for Christ, nor didst fear the great athletes, John, Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, Luke, Andrew, Thecla, and the rest, who before and after these suffered for the truth; who withstood both fire and sword, the torturers, and all sufferings present or threatened, as if their bodies were not their own, or they had had no bodies at all. For what? That they might not, so much as by a word, betray their religion. To whom also great honors and triumphs are with just reason awarded: by whom devils are expelled and diseases healed: who appear in visions, and prophecy: whose very bodies, though separate, when touched or reverenced, have like power with their holy souls; and drops of whose blood, those least tokens of their suffering, like power with their bodies.
John Damascene writes thus: The relics of the saints have been given us by our Lord Jesus Christ as salutary springs, from which manifold blessings flow. And as if in explanation of this, he remarks, that through the mind their bodies also were inhabited of God. (Theol. lib. iv. cap. 15, 3, 4.)
269. How is the Church holy, when she has in her sinners?
Men, who sin, but purify themselves by true repentance, hinder not the Church from being holy; but impenitent sinners, either by the visible act of Church authority, or by the invisible judgment of God, are cut off from the body of the Church; and so she is, in respect of these, also kept holy.
Put away from among yourselves that wicked person. 1 Cor. v. 13. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. 2 Tim. ii. 19.
271. What great privilege has the Catholic Church?
She alone has the sublime promises that the gates of hell shall not prevail against her; that the Lord shall be with her even to the end of the world; that in her shall abide the glory of God in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever; and consequently that she shall never apostatize from the faith, nor sin against the truth of the faith, or fall into error.
We undoubtingly confess, as sure truth, that the Catholic Church can not sin, nor err, nor utter falsehood in place of truth; for the Holy Ghost, ever working through his faithful ministers the fathers and doctors of the Church, preserves her from all error. (Missive of the Eastern Patriarchs on the Orthodox Faith, Art. 12.)
272. If the Catholic Church contains all true believers in the world, must we not acknowledge it to be necessary for salvation that every believer should belong to her?
Exactly so. Since Jesus Christ, in the words of St. Paul, is the Head of the Church, and he is the Saviour of the Body, it follows that, to have part in his salvation, we must necessarily be members of his body, that is, of the Catholic Church. Eph. v. 23.
The Apostle Peter writes that baptism saveth us after the figure of the ark of Noah. All who were saved from the general deluge were saved only in the ark; so all who obtain everlasting salvation obtain it only in the one Catholic Church.
284. What is a Mystery or Sacrament?
A Mystery or Sacrament is a holy act, through which grace, or, in other words, the saving power of God, works mysteriously upon man.
296. Why before baptizing do we use exorcism?
To drive away the devil, who since Adam’s fall has had access to men, and power over them, as his captives and slaves.
372. In what state are the souls of the dead till the general resurrection?
The souls of the righteous are in light and rest, with a foretaste of eternal happiness; but the souls of the wicked are in a state the reverse of this.
374. Why do we ascribe to the souls of the righteous a foretaste of bliss before the last judgment?
On the testimony of Jesus Christ himself, who says in the parable that the righteous Lazarus was immediately after death carried into Abraham’s bosom. Luke xvi. 22.
375. Is this foretaste of bliss joined with a sight of Christ’s own countenance?
It is so more especially with the saints, as we are given to understand by the Apostle Paul, who had a desire to depart, and to be with Christ. Phil. i. 23.
376. What is to be remarked of such souls as have departed with faith, but without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance?
This: that they may be aided towards the attainment of a blessed resurrection by prayers offered in their behalf, especially such as are offered in union with the oblation of the bloodless sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, and by works of mercy done in faith for their memory.
377. On what is this doctrine grounded?
On the constant tradition of the Catholic Church; the sources of which may be seen even in the Church of the Old Testament. Judas Maccabæus offered sacrifice for his men that had fallen. 2 Macc. xii. 43. Prayer for the departed has ever formed a fixed part of the divine Liturgy, from the first Liturgy of the Apostle James. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: Very great will be the benefit to those souls for which prayer is offered at the moment when the holy and tremendous Sacrifice is lying in view. (Lect. Myst. v. 9.)
St. Basil the Great, in his prayers for Pentecost, says that the Lord vouchsafes to receive from us propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for those that are kept in Hades, and allows us the hope of obtaining for them peace, relief, and freedom.
380. Whence shall proceed this so great happiness?
From the contemplation of God in light and glory, and from union with him. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know, even as also I am known. 1 Cor. xiii. 12.
Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father. Matt. xiii. 43. God shall be all in all. 1 Cor. xv. 28.
382. Will all be equally happy?
No. There will be different degrees of happiness, in proportion as every one shall have here endured the fight of faith, love, and good works. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. 1 Cor. xv. 41, 42.
383. But what will be the lot of unbelievers and transgressors?
They will be given over to everlasting death–that is, to everlasting fire, to everlasting torment, with the devils.
Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. Rev. xx. 15. And, That is the second death. Rev. xx. 14. Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. Matt. xxv. 41. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal. Matt. xxv 46. It is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. Mark ix. 47, 48.
384. Why will such severity be used with sinners?
Not because God willed them to perish; but they of their own will perish, because they receive not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 2 Thess. ii. 10.
386. What is Christian hope?
The resting of the heart on God, with the full trust that he ever cares for our salvation, and will give us the happiness he has promised.
401. How dare we call God Father?
By faith in Jesus Christ, and by the grace of regeneration.
As many as received him, to them, gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John i. 12, 13.
433. What means the word Amen.
It means verily, or so be it.
434. Why is this word added to the Doxology?
To signify that we offer the prayer in faith, and without doubting, as we are taught to do by the Apostle James. James i. 6.
440. What is it to be poor in spirit?
It is to have a spiritual conviction that we have nothing of our own, nothing but what God bestows upon us, and that we can do nothing good without God’s help and grace, thus counting ourselves as nothing, and in all throwing ourselves upon the mercy of God; in brief, as St. Chrysostom explains it, spiritual poverty is humility. (Hom. in Matt. xv.)
456. What is meant here by the word righteousness?
Though this word may well stand for every virtue which the Christian ought to desire even as his meat and drink, yet should we here specially understand that righteousness of which, in the book of Daniel, it is said, An everlasting righteousness shall be brought in; that is, the justification of guilty man through grace and faith in Jesus Christ. Dan. ix. 24.
The Apostle Paul speaks thus: The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all them that believe; for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God/ being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past. Rom. iii. 22-25.
457. Who are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness?
They who, while they love to do good, yet count not themselves righteous, nor rest on their own good works, but acknowledge themselves sinners, and guilty before God; and who, by the wish and prayer of faith, hunger and thirst after the justification of grace through Jesus Christ, as after spiritual meat and drink.
459. What is meant here by being filled?
As the filling or satisfying of the body produces, first, the cessation of the sense of hunger and thirst; secondly, the strengthening the body by food, so the filling of the soul means, first, the inward peace of the pardoned sinner; secondly, the acquisition of strength to do good, given by justifying grace.
468. Is not purity of heart the same thing as sincerity?
Sincerity which feigns not any good dispositions foreign to the heart, but shows the really good dispositions of the heart by good deeds, is only the lowest degree of purity of heart. This last a man attains by constant and strict watchfulness over himself, driving away from his heart every unlawful wish and thought, and every affection for earthly things, and ever keeping there the remembrance of God and our Lord Jesus Christ with faith and charity.
470. How are we to understand this promise?
The Word of God compares the heart of man to the eye, and ascribes to perfect Christians enlightened, eyes of the heart. Eph. i. 18. As the eye that is clear can see the light, so the heart that is pure can behold God. But since the sight of God’s countenance is the very source of everlasting blessedness, the promise of seeing God is the promise of the highest degree of everlasting blessedness.
481. What should be the effect and fruit of true faith in the Christian?
Love, and good works conformable thereto.
482. Is not faith alone enough for a Christian, without love and good works?
No; for faith without love and good works is inactive and dead, and so can not lead to eternal life.
483. May not a man, on the other hand, be saved by love and good works, without faith?
It is impossible that a man who has not faith in God should really love him; besides, man, being ruined by sin, can not do really good works, unless he receive through faith in Jesus Christ spiritual strength, or grace from God.
Without faith it is impossible to please God: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him, Heb. xi. 6.
484. What is to be thought of such love as is not accompanied by good works?
Such love is not real: for true love naturally shows itself by good works.
487. If there is in man’s heart an inward law, why was the outward given?
It was given because men obeyed not the inward law, but led carnal and sinful lives, and stifled within themselves the voice of the spiritual law, so that it was necessary to put them in mind of it outwardly through the Commandments. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions.. Gal. iii. 19.
490. You said that these  Commandments were given to the people of Israel: must we, then, also walk by them?
We must: for they are in substance the same law which, in the words of St. Paul, has been written in the hearts of all men, that all should walk by it.
491. Did Jesus Christ teach men to walk by the Ten Commandments?
He bade men, if they would attain to everlasting life, to keep the Commandments and taught us to understand and fulfill them more perfectly than had been done before he came.
492. What means the division of the Ten Commandments into two tables?
This: that they contain two kinds of love–love to God, and love to our neighbor; and prescribe two corresponding kinds of duties.
508…Atheism; when men, whom the Psalmist justly calls fools, wishing to rid themselves of the fear of God’s judgment, say in their heart, There is no God.
608. What is indispensable for the cleansing of the heart?
The frequent and earnest invocation of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
611. What caution do we need when we seem to ourselves to have fulfilled any commandment?
We must then dispose our hearts according to the words of Jesus Christ: When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. Luke xvii. 10.
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Regarding #34: I wonder how St. Philaret (or a modern editor) would put this one today, given that all of the deuterocanonical books (apart from Wisdom, the Letter of Jeremiah, and 2-3 Maccabees) have either been found in the original Hebrew/Aramaic (Sirach, Tobit, and Psalm 151), convincingly argued by a majority of scholars to be originally in Hebrew/Aramaic (1 Maccabees, Baruch, Judith), or have uncertain debate amongst scholars about the original language (additions to Daniel, some of the additions to Esther, the original sections of the Greek Ezra, Prayer of Manasseh). It would seem that saying, “They’re not in Hebrew” would only apply to 4 of the books (I suppose you could reword it to “They are not found in the Hebrew/Jewish Canon”
Regarding #382: Similar to Thomistic Theology (cf. Summa Theologiae, Supplement, Q. 93). I actually just read about the same idea in the Homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh (Homily 7), but he has one more layer of nuance: there will be different levels of happiness based on the degrees of love, but we won’t be aware of it (not exactly completely unaware–but you won’t be spending eternity wishing you had pursued holiness better/envying those holier than you).
Thanks for posting this!