Through Western eyes
Nick Needham (this page) and Georgi Viazovski (p.29) review Robert Letham’s recent book, Through Western eyes. Eastern Orthodoxy: a Reformed perspective (Christian Focus; Mentor; 2007).
Eastern Orthodoxy is an unknown quantity to most British Evangelicals. We tend to lump Orthodoxy together with Roman Catholicism as a religion of ritualism and works-righteousness. To remedy such misapprehensions, Dr Robert Letham of WEST has written this outstanding introduction to Eastern Orthodox faith and life.
The book is divided into three sections. Section One takes us through the history of Orthodoxy, from its origins in early Eastern Christianity to the present day – through its 11th century separation from Western Catholicism and its mixed fortunes during the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and under Communism.
Section Two explores five key themes in Orthodox theology and spirituality – prayers and icons; Scripture and tradition; church and sacraments; the Trinity; and salvation (justification, deification, and synergism).
Section Three seeks to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses both of Orthodoxy and of Dr Letham’s own Reformed tradition (probably shared by many ET readers).
If you know little about Orthodoxy, Dr Letham’s book is a gem – one of the best places to begin discovering a different Christian tradition that disillusioned ‘Evangelicals’ today often find more attractive than Roman Catholicism. One thinks, for example, of Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis), and one-time Anglican Charismatic leader Michael Harper, both of whom have converted to Orthodoxy.
The appeal of Orthodoxy
Why do such disenchanted Protestants – seeking a more ‘historical’ faith and a more reverential form of worship – find Orthodoxy more appealing than Rome?
As Dr Letham indicates, there are several reasons. First, Orthodoxy has a more people-centred understanding of church life than Roman Catholicism. Lacking the central authority of a pope, and with a strong sense of the corporate nature of the church, Orthodox ecclesiastical structures are often less clerical and more congregational in ethos than Rome’s.
An ex-Evangelical will find himself relatively at home in a church that has married clergy, a lively tradition of lay theology, and a ‘Protestant’ tendency to thumb its nose at archbishops and patriarchs who don’t make the theological grade.
Second, the hostility towards justification by faith that has characterised Rome since the 16th century is largely absent from Orthodoxy. The historical absence of controversy on the subject means that the doctrine barely appears on the Orthodox ‘radar screen’.
A convert to Orthodoxy can, if he wants, carry on believing in justification by faith, as long as he makes it clear that justifying faith is always living faith. Orthodoxy basically sees salvation in terms of sanctification.
Having said this, Dr Letham provides quotations from Orthodox teachers of high repute which contain the marrow of a biblical doctrine of justification. Symeon, for example, said: ‘I did no more than believe, and the Lord accepted me’. Similar statements are cited from a treatise by Mark the Ascetic, On those who think they are made righteous by works – ‘The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works but a gift of grace’.
Third, the sacramental life of Orthodoxy, although far richer than most Evangelicals are used to, is not burdened with offensive Roman ‘baggage’. For example, in the Orthodox Eucharist there is no worship of the consecrated bread, no reservation of it in tabernacles, no complex theory of transubstantiation to ‘explain’ the mystery of the Real Presence, and the wine has never been withheld from the laity.
There are various ways, then, that Orthodoxy may seem a more attractive alternative than Rome to a disillusioned ‘Evangelical’. But why do such people become disillusioned in the first place? Dr Letham thinks there are real weaknesses in much modern evangelicalism, and that Orthodoxy has some notable spiritual strengths that we do well to ponder.
Among those highlighted by Dr Letham, this reviewer would pick out two: Orthodoxy’s profound focus on the Trinity, and the way it integrates theology and spirituality.
Concerning the Trinity, it is refreshing to find in Orthodoxy a Christian tradition where this basic truth is given more than lip-service. The Trinity is arguably the very lifeblood of Orthodox faith and worship.
The Orthodox liturgy opens every Sunday with, ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages’. The rest of the liturgy is permeated with Trinitarian thought and language – as is Orthodox spiritual literature.
By contrast, some Evangelicals seem interested in the Trinity only when refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses! As Dr Letham pungently comments: ‘for the vast majority it is little more than an arcane mathematical riddle, of no real consequence for daily living …’ (p.272).
How far does the reality of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit truly pervade and inform our worship – our prayers, our hymns, our spirituality, our faith, our life? Dr Letham contrasts Evangelical superficiality with Orthodox profundity on this point: ‘What a contrast the Byzantine liturgy provides! The Trinity saturates the prayers and acclamations. Right at the heart of Eastern piety – and thus Eastern theology – is a clear and articulated realisation that the God we worship is triune’ (p.272).
Theology and spirituality
A second strength identified by Dr Letham is Orthodoxy’s integrated approach to theology and spirituality. Doctrine in Orthodoxy consists not so much in abstract truths about God, as in an experiential description of how he relates to us. Orthodoxy theology calls this ‘economy’ – how God administers his grace for our salvation.
In an Orthodox context, it makes little sense to have a head-knowledge of a doctrine which did not correspond to some actual spiritual experience in the believer’s life. Doctrines are signposts pointing us to experience of God. It is the experience that is saving – indeed, that is salvation itself.
Yet there is no way to experience the salvation except in the context of the doctrines, especially as they are fleshed out in the church’s worship (which Orthodoxy sees as a foretaste of heavenly life). There is a distinct unwillingness to consent to any doctrinal formulation divorced from the living experience of the Orthodox faith community.
Right belief, right experience and right worship form a seamless garment in Orthodoxy. Doubtless, a healthy evangelicalism would agree, but too much evangelicalism today is radically unhealthy. Orthodoxy’s spiritual insight here could stimulate Evangelicals to revive what is best in their own tradition.
Perhaps by now, readers are wondering what Dr Letham has to say about the weaknesses of Orthodoxy! In fact he gives us a well-mannered but uncompromising critique of Orthodox errors from a robustly Reformed perspective. Perhaps I can highlight the following four criticisms.
First, a Reformed believer will discern in Orthodoxy a distorted relationship between Scripture and church. Orthodoxy assumes that it alone is the True Church, and therefore that its understanding of Scripture is the only true understanding. Any criticism of Orthodoxy is trumped by the claim, ‘But we are the true church, so our view must be right’.
This effectively puts Orthodoxy beyond the possibility of biblical reformation. No Reformed Christian will be impressed by this line of reasoning if he is properly conscious of his own roots – namely, the 16th century reformation of another Church that claimed infallibility yet deviated from the apostolic faith.
Second, Orthodoxy’s doctrine of salvation is resolutely synergistic. That is, the Orthodox see salvation at every level as a free cooperation between the divine and human wills. There is no place in Orthodoxy for the Reformed perspective on man’s total depravity and God’s sovereign grace in election and regeneration.
A Reformed believer will find the same fundamental difficulties here as he finds in Arminianism. Many modern Orthodox virtually ‘demonise’ Augustine as a major corruptor of the apostolic faith for his teaching on the sovereignty of grace.
Third, the Reformed Christian will find serious ground for concern in the place Orthodoxy gives to the departed saints. Their presence through icons is overwhelming in Orthodox worship, and the principal form of lay participation in the service is venerating the icons.
It is wedded to the Orthodox practice of ‘invoking’ the departed saints – asking for their help and prayers – a practice devoid of biblical warrant. This is especially the case when the saints are seen as interceding with Christ, obscuring the immediacy of the sinner’s access to our compassionate High Priest. Since Christ is perpetually interceding for us, why would we need to plead with saints to intercede with him?
Fourth, the predominance in Orthodox worship of what is visual tends to downgrade preaching. The eye trumps the ear. There are exceptions but, generally, listening to and understanding the preached Word does not have a high place in Orthodox worship.
Dr Letham contrasts this with John Calvin’s view of the work of the Spirit in communicating the knowledge of God through the written and preached Word (pp. 280-82). For Reformed Christianity, worship arises fundamentally from listening to what the Lord says.
May I add two further thoughts of my own. While official Orthodox theology does not have a polemical attitude to justification by faith, it still fails to present this essential doctrine with anything like the clarity it demands. ‘Evangelical’ converts to Orthodoxy sometimes display a scornful negativity towards justification by faith – as though it were tantamount to ‘cheap grace’ devoid of transforming power.
Of course, these converts may be revealing inadequate teaching in their own evangelical past. But considerable potential for misunderstanding remains when Evangelicals and Orthodox discuss the crucial matter of justification.
Then there is the persecution of Evangelicals in some traditionally Orthodox countries. To be fair, many Orthodox in the West find this embarrassing. Further, Orthodox persecution is not limited to Evangelicals – Old Calendarist Orthodox have been persecuted by New Calendarists in some Eastern countries (the major internal schism within Orthodoxy is between those who adhere to the Old [Julian] Calendar, and those who embrace the New [Gregorian] Calendar; the schism also involves differing attitudes to ecumenism).
The fact remains that too many Orthodox in traditionally Orthodox nations have a hard time conceding full civil liberty for non-Orthodox religions, and Evangelicals often suffer as a result.
I highly recommend Dr Letham’s book as a safe guide to Eastern Orthodoxy for Reformed readers: accurate, readable, sympathetic in tone, ready to learn, yet willing to criticise where Scripture demands it.
The reviewer is pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church, Inverness, and lecturer in church history at the Highland Theological College, Dingwall