Church History Doesn’t Begin at the Reformation: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology [A Review]

I grew up in a rather conservative, Protestant, Evangelical (notice the capital “E”) church world. We took our cues predominantly from within the Fundamentalist movement of the late 19th/early 20th century, as we were its heirs. History wasn’t really a factor because it was mainly known as Tradition – again, take note of the capital “T” as it is typically indicative of all things Catholic within the aforementioned world. And when I say Catholic, I mean blasphemous. As in anti-Christ. As in world power pictured in the book of Revelation. There was no room for capital “T” within the capital “E.”

Church History 1 and 2 were classes I took while in Bible college and they, as far as I can recall, took a similar trajectory to the church world I grew up in. Basically, Jesus was born, died, resurrected and then the Holy Spirit started the church through particular acts of power. But don’t worry that stuff doesn’t happen any more. Wink, wink.

Fast forward from Jesus to the Reformation when Luther and Calvin took the world by storm. We left the heavy hand of the Catholic Church and now we are what we are today.

Not only was the gap between Jesus and the Reformation overlooked, it was so egregiously forgotten that there was not even a mention of the church fathers and mothers – the forebears of Eastern Orthodox Church and its theology. (And…shhh…the Church as a whole.) Thankfully, while in seminary, I was introduced to what has come to be known as the Patristic age.

And my world was changed.

This is why I am thankful for this little book by an amazing theologian, Andrew Louth: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. I had read some of Louth’s work while in seminary and was caught up in the lucidity and potency of his writing. This work continues in the same vein.

Within the pages of this book, he takes on the gamut of topics usually rendered by history as the spectrum of theology. Beginning with God (theology proper) and culminating with “the last things and eternal life” (eschatology), Louth gives us the Eastern Orthodox vantage point tying them all together.

Yet throughout the book, he is also cautious to remind us that these are the understandings of Eastern Orthodoxy mediated through his own experience. He doesn’t pretend to speak for all of Eastern Orthodoxy – for there is no inherent monolith – which makes room for the readers’ questions and personal inquiry. History is well represented, but it represented through a medium of humility allowing us to wrestle with the material being presented. “What we should hear from the chorus of the Fathers is a rich harmony, not a thin unison.” It is to this harmony that we are asked to participate.

What I loved about this book is its insistence on understanding through experience and prayer. These aren’t bifurcated realities; rather, they are one and the same: we live our lives as a prayer. Louth states,

An introduction to Eastern Orthodox theology, as I understand it, may well involve learning various facts and dates, terminology and concepts, but at its heart it is an understanding to a way of life. (p. 3)

And elsewhere,

The only knowledge that counts, the only theology that is truly Orthodox, is participation in God’s movement in love towards us in creation and Incarnation by our response of love. (p. 122)

And again,

First, the mysteries of theology are mediated by a prayer, not by a creed or treatise: we only understand by participating ourselves in prayer. Second, all that follows is seen in terms of engagement with God, flowing from prayer: accepting God’s gifts and using them, even more, imitating in our movement towards God, his movement towards us, so that the Word’s kenosis, self-emptying, calls forth our self-emptying…” (p. 123)

Thus, Louth encourages us, as has the history of the Church because of Jesus himself, to find our bearings in prayer. In an effort to aid in this, Louth has peppered the book with liturgical prayers. Many of these are breath-taking in their theological depth and candor. For those of us bereft of Tradition and liturgy, these prayers bring us into the heart of what both joy and sorrow look like; what petition and repentance can sound like; how both immanence and transcendence are found in Jesus. I found myself praying these prayers, not simply reading them off of a page.

For those of us who have grown up in Protestant saturated worlds, there will be plenty of material to truly wonder about. For instance, Eastern Orthodoxy’s place for Mary the mother of Jesus, their thoughts and uses of icons, and the thread of universalism found within their eschatology. How have these things been viewed throughout history? What did the early church say that has been carried through by the Orthodox?

All in all, I would certainly recommend this book. The clarity, thoroughness, and emphasis on prayerful participation make it well worth getting. In addition, I would particularly encourage those seeking a more historical approach to their Christianity, along with those who have perhaps grown tired of the pallid or historical short-sightedness common within much of the Protestant body to pick up a copy. The historical gold found within these pages is a much needed introduction – and, hopefully, encouragement to continue – to the vast wisdom and love given to us by those from the early centuries of the Church.

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15 thoughts on “Church History Doesn’t Begin at the Reformation: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology [A Review]

  1. Pingback: Hipsterdox | Church History Doesn’t Begin at the Reformation: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology [A Review]

  2. I really enjoyed this review. There really is an arrogance (usually intended) in Western Christianity. We give little thought to Christianity outside the Latin/Roman tradition. But of course the Orthodox tradition is the oldest continuing expression of the faith. There is much to learn from it. Although I don’t know anyone personally who experienced this, quite a few students at my Wesleyan/Methodist seminary became Orthodox by the time they graduated. Certainly the theology is rich. (I love the notion of God’s movement in love towards us in creation).

    I read Timothy Ware’s book The Orthodox Church and I think you would enjoy it. Of course if you’re like me you already have a long list of books to read and not nearly enough time to read them. 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words.
      I, too, know a few people for whom Eastern Orthodoxy’s call has won them over. The theology is incredibly rich and, in my opinion, so very needed in terms of their sacramental and incarnational emphases.
      I have not read Ware’s book; another one to add to the Wish List. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Books of 2013 | Storied Community

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