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.

Taking a Posture of a Mother and Father: Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2

Last night I had the privilege of having a hand in dedicating 3 children from our community to God, each other, and in a very real way, the onlooking world. We’d been planning on having this event for awhile now and, thankfully, our lectionary texts for the day proved to be invaluable.

The text I decided to preach on was found in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Here we find Paul describing his life-on-life approach to founding a community of disciples centering their lives on, around, and in Jesus, also known as a church. He comes to them as one looking to proclaim the kingdom of God brought about by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. He does this, however, not through seminars, classes, street preaching, or questionnaires, but through giving his life over to them. Words alone will not suffice; he must meld his life with theirs and embody or incarnate the message he is attempting to bring to them. This is because it is not simply a hodge podge of words or some mythical story. No, he is presenting to them Jesus.

Here we find the idea of posture through Paul’s metaphor of coming to them as both a mother and father.

As a mother, Paul comes to this community opening himself up in love for the sake of them. Picture a mother nursing her child: it is an image of love and self-giving for the betterment of the child. It is a depriving of herself. It is a posture of weakness, not in a pejorative sense, but in a sense of sacrifice and, ultimately, love. It is a posture of invitation that seeks out the other with open arms.

And Paul continues to push our imaginations by claiming to also have come as a father. He came to them under the pretense that he would labor and work in order to not be a burden upon them. He was “exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of [them] you” because he saw the need for their growth. As a disciple himself, he had to be taught what living life like and in Jesus was about. He was pushed and shaped and formed and now he was seeking to do the same. Yet again we see the love and tender care that he employs here. He wasn’t a burden, he wasn’t a hypocrite; he took on the posture of challenge and enveloped it with the posture of invitation he embodied/incarnated as a mother.

And, again, where did Paul learn all of this? He learned this from being a disciple (the Greek actually means learner) of Jesus. Jesus knew that his posture towards others would be the means by which he would influence. Like a mother, He called children to himself and used parables involving children to provoke our redemptive images of God and ourselves. Yet he pushed his followers to a fuller and more holistic way of life: a life within his new creation as his kingdom unfolds and they become the humans they were supposed to be.   If you look at the gospels, you can see that it was his embodiment of love (his posture of invitation and challenge) that powerfully formed people; his message typically pushed people away. So, we see it was his actual person/being that “attracted” people to himself, so they could understand his message. In other words, they saw how to live his message long before they could articulate his message.

And I believe this is what Paul is causing us to recall. He didn’t come up with this stuff on his own. No, he learned it and it was for the “kingdom and [God’s] glory.” He brings to our attention the earthiness of our faith in that we don’t have to look very far to see how Jesus was and is: simply look to a loving mother and father. He reminds us that our lives, our practicing resurrection, must be lived in a posture that depicts what we believe. We have been called into the kingdom of God, which demands not a mere set of beliefs, but a life that interlocks and intermingles with the lives of everyone around us. In our culture, we have become good at speaking words (demonstrating what we think we know), but not incarnating words (demonstrating what we actually believe). We must be patiently postured in the midst of our family, friends, and neighbors in order to articulate our message.

Perhaps if others haven’t wondered more about our faith it is because we haven’t postured ourselves in love for God’s kingdom and glory.

Caesar’s Image versus God’s Image: An Ancient Reflection on Matthew 22

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“So let us always reflect the image of God in these ways:

I do not swell up with the arrogance of pride;

nor do I droop with the blush of anger;

nor do I succumb to the passion of avarice;

nor do I surrender myself to the ravishes of gluttony;

nor do I infect myself with the duplicity of hypocrisy;

nor do I contaminate myself with the filth of rioting;

nor do I grow flippant with the pretension of conceit;

nor do I grow enamored of the burden of heavy drinking;

nor do I alienate by the dissension of mutual admiration;

nor do I infect others with the biting of detraction;

nor do I grow conceited with the vanity of gossip.

Rather, instead, I will reflect the image of God in that I feed on love;

grow certain on faith and hope;

strengthen myself on the virtue of patience;

grow tranquil by humility;

grow beautiful by chastity;

am sober by abstention;

am made happy by tranquility;

and am ready for death by practicing hospitality.

It is with such inscriptions that God imprints his coins with an impression made neither by hammer nor by chisel but has formed them with his primary divine intention. For Caesar required his image on every coin, but God has chosen man, whom he has created, to reflect his glory.”

– Homily 42 from the Incomplete Work on Matthew

The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life by Joan Chittister

 

The Liturgical YearIf you’re like me you know Christmas and Easter as the two events where the church service attendance skyrocketed. Also, if you are anything like me, you’ve heard of things like Advent and Lent, but never feasts, times of penance, or any other particular day off the Christian calendar. For many those things are “much too Catholic”, somehow equated to a work done away with by Jesus, or some other excuse for flat-out ignorance. I know for me it was.

Chittister brings out the aspects of the liturgical year in such a way that a newbie like myself can stand in awe of. The book itself is an exploration in the liturgical year, essentially from her Roman Catholic perspective, yet in a generic way that any Christian tradition could agree with. She begins with an overview of the basics and then dives into every season and major day celebrated within the calendar.

Her main contention is to bring to light the spiritual ramifications and transformation brought about by living out the Christian year in step with Jesus’ life. The Christian calendar isn’t a mundane routine meant to keep us in the know regarding the dates of Christian events. Rather, it is the following of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection as it overlaps, intertwines, deepens, and transforms our lives. The annual ins and outs of the Christian calendar bring us into the mysteries of Christ’s life that have been reflected upon and embodied for hundreds and hundreds of years by thousands and thousands of people. By allowing the life of Jesus to determine the flow of our every day, we are gently molded into and by the community Jesus brings us into.

Overall, I’d recommend the book to anyone looking to connect to the historical stream found within the Church. In a world dominated by fiscal, athletic, school, and social calendars and timetables, the liturgical calendar stands strong as a reminder that we call Jesus not only Savior, but Lord, and that includes our time and seasonal rhythms. Chittister’s book would be a great introduction for anyone seeking to enter the realm of the ancient practices.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com <http://BookSneeze.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Prayer for the Week

“O God Almighty, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant us, we pray thee, to be grounded and settled in the truth, by the coming down of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. That which we know not…reveal; that which is wanting in us…fill up; that which we know…confirm, and keep up blameless in thy service; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Clement

Prayer for the week

“Light of Light, and God of God, who did bow your holy heavens and descend to earth for the salvation of the world, out of your love of humanity; extend your almighty right hand, and send out your blessings on us all…Guide our steps into the paths of righteousness, that we may behave ourselves according to your will and observe your commandments and do them all the days of our life, and come to a blessed end and sing a ceaseless hymn with your saints to you, and your Father and your Holy Spirit. Amen.” – Liturgy of Dioscorus