Through Western Eyes, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective,
by Robert Letham, Mentor/Christian Focus, 2007, 320pp
by Robert Letham, Mentor/Christian Focus, 2007, 320pp
Eastern Orthodoxy looks a somewhat strange version of the Christianity faith when viewed through the eyes of Reformed Evangelicals. I mean, all those hairy priests wafting plumes incense all over the place in buildings resplendent with dazzling icons. What's all that about? Robert Letham helps to shock us out of our prejudice by first of all narrating the rich history of Eastern Orthodoxy. Many of the great heroes of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity were from the East. Athanasius was a redoubtable defender of the deity of Christ in the face of the Arian heresy. He also emphasised that Christ became Man in order that human beings might participate in the divine nature, making deification a key aspect of Orthodox soteriology. The Cappadocians, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzen helped to give welcome clarity to the church's doctrine of the Trinity. The teaching of the somewhat cantankerous Cyril of Alexandria on the relationship between the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ was highly influential at the Council of Chalcedon. Easter Orthodoxy is profoundly conscious of this valuable theological heritage. In so much as Orthodoxy has a doctrinal basis, it is the creedal statements produced by the seven ecumenical councils. The great Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of faith (and its variants, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession) draw on the language of the the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. In keeping with historic orthodoxy, the Reformed gladly confess that the Son is of the same nature (homoousion) with the Father and that the Trinity is a union of three persons (hypostasis) in the one being (ousia) of God. We have cause to be profoundly grateful to the Fathers of the Eastern Church.
It was news to me that Cyril Lucaris, who was to become Patriarch of Constantinople embraced Calvinism while serving in Poland during the Reformation. He published a Calvinistic confession of faith in 1629. Sadly, Lucaris was murdered by Turkish emissaries and his body dumped in the Bosporus. But as Letham points out, while there has never been a Calvinistic pope, Orthodoxy can boast at least one Reformed patriarch.
So much for the history. In the next part of the book, Letham turns his gaze upon Eastern theology. Immediately one is struck with the otherness of Orthodoxy as the writer introduces us to a typical Eastern church service replete with icons, arcane priestly ceremonies, and prayers to the dead. The use of icons in worship was once the cause of serious controversy in the Orthodox Church with the iconoclasts insisting that the use of images is idolatrous and contrary to the second commandment. The iconodules, led by John of Damascus responded that icons are not there to be worshipped. They simply act as a window into the unseen spiritual world and so are aids to salvation. Icons of Christ are permitted because in his humanity he is the image of the invisible God. The iconodules won the day and their position was ratified at Nicaea II, the only ecumenical council not usually accepted by Protestants. The argument that visible representations of Christ are permitted because he took a true human nature is suspect. We cannot divorce his humanity from the divine Person of the Son. That way lies Nestorianism. When it comes to prayers to the dead, Letham rightly says that there is nothing wrong in asking other believers to intercede with God on our behalf. The problem is asking dead Christians to do so. There is no biblical evidence that the dead in Christ are able to respond to our requests for prayer, so there is no point in trying to enlist their help.
For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of the living tradition of the Church along with the declarations of the ecumenical councils and later Church teachings. This robs Scripture of its critical authority over the traditions of the Church. Tradition is valuable, but even the most ancient traditions of the Church are subject to the scrutiny of the Bible. That said, Orthodoxy is right to stress that Scripture was given to the Church and that the Church and Scripture are mutually dependent. Orthodox worship is full of Bible readings, with huge chunks of Scripture being read to the congregation. This is a challenge to some of our Reformed churches, where the Minister will simply read the few verses that will form the basis for his sermon rather than whole chapters from the Word of God.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodoxy does not have a hierarchical structure of authority. It is a family of self-governing churches. The Eastern Church resists the claims to papal primacy (based supposedly on Matthew 16:18), holding that the church is led collectively by the bishops. Like Rome, the Orthodox teach that there are seven sacraments rather than simply baptism and the Lord's Supper as found in Scripture. But the Eastern Church is is not as dogmatic as Rome about the number seven. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are esteemed as pre-eminent among the mysteries. Baptism brings the candidate into union with Christ and actually confers forgiveness of sin. At the Lord's Supper, the consecrated bead and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, but Orthodoxy makes no attempt to explain the mystery, unlike the Roman dogma of transubstantiation. In the East, the Eucharist is seen as a propitiatory sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead. The Reformed (at least Reformed Baptists!) teach that baptism is a symbol of grace already received by faith. The Lord's Supper is no trip down memory lane, it is an act of communion with the risen Christ who is present at the Table by the Spirit as the faithful eat bread and drink wine together. But there is no change in the substance of the elements and the Lord's Supper is not to be understood in sacrificial terms. There is little room for preaching in Orthodox services, with greatest attention being given to highly visible icons and ceremonies. The Reformers recovered the New Testament's emphasis on the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. We encounter the living God as he addresses us through the Christ-centred Word, preached in the power of the Spirit. We cannot see God, but we can hear him.
Letham devotes a chapter to the divergent understandings of the Trinity in the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church. The West, following Augustine has tended to approach the Trinity starting with the one divine essence. This can lead to difficulties in appreciating how the three relate to the one. Augustine famously spoke of the Trinity in terms of the Father as lover, the Son as loved and the Holy Spirit as the union of love between the Father and Son. Needless to say this perspective leaves in doubt the full deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity has often been neglected in Western theology, piety and worship. In the East however, the Trinity is central to the Church's theology, worship and life, with due emphasis being given to the three Persons. But the Eastern doctrine of God is complicated by a distinction between the divine essence, which is unknowable, and the divine energies through which he reveals himself to us. This view, first formulated by Gregory Palamas, leaves us in doubt as to what God is really like. A basic principle of Christian theology is that God's self-revelation is a true depiction of his inner life. The imminent Trinity is revealed in the acts of the economic Trinity. The differences between Eastern and Western Trinitarian theology come to the fore in the filioque controversy. The West added to the Niceno-Contantinopolitan creed the phrase, the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father and the Son'. Letham discusses at length the arguments for and against filioque. He attempts to resolve the age-old differences over the doctrine of the Trinity in East and West by asserting with Gregory of Nazianzen that the one and the three are equally ultimate in God.
But what of the Eastern view of salvation? The East tends not to take the plight of man in sin quite so seriously as the Western Augustinian tradition. The Reformed argue biblically (Ephesians 2:1-4) that since the fall, man is dead in trespasses and sin and therefore is unable to move towards God. In the East it is held that man is able to respond to God's offer of grace. Salvation is viewed synergistically rather than monergistically. However, many Eastern Orthodox theologians have taught a doctrine of justification by faith alone that is comparable to the classic Reformed position. But where the West tends to view salvation forensically, the East focuses on deification, that the Son of God became man to enable us to partake in the divine nature. As Letham points out, the forensic and participative aspects of salvation are both rooted in the believer's union with Christ. Orthodoxy dislikes the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which it confuses with arbitrary fatalism. Protestant converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are required to renounce a version of predestination that bears no resemblance to the historic Calvinistic teaching. The Reformed doctrine of predestination asserts both the absolute sovereignty of God and the responsibility of human beings.
In a helpful chapter, Areas of Agreement, Misunderstanding and Disagreement, Letham pulls the threads of this study together. He welcomes positive aspects of Eastern theology such as the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity, strong emphasis on union with Christ, and the unity of theology and piety. But he does not ignore areas of substantive disagreement like the tendency in the East to downplay the preaching of the Word of God, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and a synergistic understanding of salvation. If dialogue between the East and Reformed Christians is to make progress, we need to remove misunderstandings and yet be clear where real differences remain. At the very least Letham has enabled Reformed believers to have a more unblinkered and sympathetic understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy. The theologian has no time for the kind of ecumenism that simply papers over the cracks, yet he longs for the visible unity of the church of in answer to Jesus' prayer in John 17.
One big issue that Letham avoids facing is that Orthodoxy, which heroically resisted atheistic Communism in the 20th century, is often intolerant of other manifestations of the Christian faith, especially Evangelicalism. Evangelicals in Russia and some former Soviet countries are feeling the pinch at the moment. It is another sad case in church history of the persecuted turning persecutor once the pressure is off (witness also the Puritans, who fled from persecution in England only to persecute Quakers in the New World). Eastern Orthodoxy needs to address this matter urgently.
Through Western Eyes can be viewed as a companion piece to Letham's The Holy Trinity In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, P&R, 2004. Those who are tantalised by his proposal on resolving the filioque controversy are referred to this volume (which you can see reviewed here). But this is a work of ecumenical theology in its own right that helps us look at Eastern Orthodoxy from a Reformed Perspective with appreciation, integrity and honesty.