On Eastern Orthodoxy

This book has been out a while now. However, its importance can hardly be exaggerated. We know next to nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy (EO), and Letham has done us a very valuable service by reintroducing us to our long-lost cousin (p. 11-12). The purpose of Letham’s book is well summarized in the preface: “I hope that, in drawing attention to the agreements and misunderstands, readers may come to a better understanding of where the real differences lie” (p. 13). So, Letham’s purpose is to point out where we Reformed agree with EO (especially against Rome, as there are many who think we are further away from EO than we are from Rome), and where we have misunderstood EO. This all serves the purpose of clarifying where we in fact disagree (and Letham never papers over those differences), so that further discussion can perhaps result in greater unity.

One of the most interesting points about EO is that it never had to face the Enlightenment fractionalization of knowledge (p. 12, 275 and elsewhere). In other words, most EO theologians plunge right in to theology without concern for defending their beliefs against a form of rationalism. As a result, the EO church does not have the great divide between theology and piety. The connecting glue between the two is the liturgy. It was rather eye-opening to see how much Scripture is read in an EO service (see pp. 163-164). For the Good Friday service alone, there are 37 (!) readings from the Bible, many of them whole chapters, or even several chapters! Compare this to the paucity of evangelical services, where one is fortunate to have one reading sandwiched in between the puppet show and the dance.

The book starts with an excellent historical overview of the seven ecumenical councils (which constitutes the confessional basis of the EO church). Of course, we as Reformed folk hold to them as well, except for the icons business, which Letham discusses at great length. Letham also discusses the most important EO theologians (ranging from Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas and more modern theologians, such as Bulgakov (although the last is discussed more fully in Letham’s book on the Trinity).

In the next part of the book, Letham tackles the main issues: prayer, icons, Scripture, tradition, Church, Sacraments, the Trinity, and Salvation (including justification, deification, and synergism). Then Letham ties it all up very nicely in the concluding chapters by reiterating what we have in common, where we have misunderstood them, and where they have misunderstood us, and where we still plain ol’ disagree. All in all, the best book for an entrance into understanding the EO church.

And, as one last point, I must commend Christian Focus in the Mentor imprint for what is surely the most creative book cover for a theological book that I have ever seen.

22 Comments

  1. July 6, 2008 at 5:04 am

    Thanks for this review; I have had this book for some time, but have not got round to reading it – I really must now.

    Concerning icons, although I disagree with them (obviously), I have read R.J. Rushdoony argue that the Eastern Roman Empire (partly) wanted rid of them because icons reminded the authorities (and the people) that the State was not the incarnation of the divine on earth – a view common in antiquity and revived by Hegel in recent times.

  2. Andrew said,

    July 6, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Sounds very interesting.

    Is there any one book you, or any reader would recommend on Roman Catholicism?

  3. E.C. Hock said,

    July 6, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Does Letham address in his book why many in the Reformed camp, of late, are being drawn to EO? Not all are attracted to it for the same reasons, and it seems many do not decide the matter on theological reasons, but for reasons of history, structure or community. Surely one reason is that they have not really grasped the Christ-centered marrow of Reformed Theology in its experiential as well as confessional sense, or they have been reared in Reformed circles that have not understood the gospel as it touches on the role of the affections as well as on belief and behavior.The comment about the EO not being ravaged by the emergent sirens of the Rennaisance, and the Enlightenment, is especially interesting!

  4. JG said,

    July 7, 2008 at 2:59 am

    Morey has a neat little book on EO too. Just came out a few months ago.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    July 7, 2008 at 9:45 am

    On Roman Catholicism, the best book by far is edited by John Armstrong, and is entitled Roman Catholicism. There are some serious problems with Lorraine Boettner’s book, as Karl Keating has pointed out.

  6. greenbaggins said,

    July 7, 2008 at 9:46 am

    E.C., he does address that issue through a description of what has made it appealing to the West in general, which is its sense of mystery, historical rootedness, its Bible-rich liturgy, among other factors.

  7. July 7, 2008 at 9:54 am

    I have not read Armstong but I have read James White’s “The Fatal Flaw” which is excellent. And yes, Boettner’s book is not the best. Neither is Keating’s response, obviously! :) After reading Keating as a recent convert, I remember wrestling in prayer on my knees holding up to the Lord verses from Galatians. I thought I was in battle with the Devil. God’s grace is amazing. What was once something that could twist us up can become by grace something we can stare in the face and refute with the Sword of the Lord.

    Unworthy but His,

    Ron

  8. GLW Johnson said,

    July 7, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Lane
    Armstrong now considers that book an embarressment to him along with the book that he edited and I contributed to, ‘The Coming Evangelical Crisis’ (Moody,1996).

  9. July 7, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Mr. Johnson,

    Are you referring to “JbFA” in which MacArthur, Sproul, Gerstner, Beeke and Armstrong contributed? That I have read, and I don’t think it comes close to White’s effort. Gerstner’s appendix was the books greatest disappointment in my estimation.

    Ron

  10. greenbaggins said,

    July 7, 2008 at 10:13 am

    Gary, why doesn’t that surprise me? A perfectly good book, clearly delineating differences and agreements (especially the former!), written by top-flight scholars, and he is ashamed of it? Unthinkable! Ron, Gary is referring to the book entitled Roman Catholicism, edited by John Armstrong.

  11. July 7, 2008 at 10:18 am

    O.K., Lane. That one I haven’t read.

    Cheers,

    Ron

  12. GLW Johnson said,

    July 7, 2008 at 10:27 am

    Ron
    Armstrong no longer espouses the substance of what he wrote in JBFA.

  13. July 7, 2008 at 11:18 am

    o.k.

  14. G.C. Berkley said,

    July 7, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    #12

    What does he now espouse?

  15. greenbaggins said,

    July 7, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Just about everything. He’s in the RCA now, where anything goes. He went there because of women’s issues. He certainly espouses nothing remotely resembling Reformed soteriology on justification.

  16. David Gray said,

    July 7, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    >Armstrong no longer espouses the substance of what he wrote in JBFA.

    Would he say that?

  17. David Gadbois said,

    July 7, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Armstrong is now a Shepherdite when it comes to justification. So, no, he does not hold to the evangelical doctrine of justification.

  18. David Gray said,

    July 7, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    >Armstrong is now a Shepherdite when it comes to justification. So, no, he does not hold to the evangelical doctrine of justification.

    You didn’t answer my question…

  19. EMAshley said,

    July 7, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Has anyone read Donald Fairbairn’s book Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes? I’m just curious as to how Letham and Fairbairn’s books compare.

  20. July 9, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    I haven’t read Letham yet, but I’m just finishing Fairbairn’s book. It’s quite good. Fairbairn is an accomplished historian but has a heart for missions. I recommend it highly, along with James R. Payton’s Light From the Christian East. Payton is also Reformed.

  21. Bill Stephens said,

    July 10, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Gerald Bray’s book, THE DOCTRINE OF GOD, has a section dealing with the filioque clause. I think his analysis is quite penetrating.

  22. July 19, 2008 at 9:25 am

    The Russians faced plenty of the Enlightenment thinking. Just read Dostoyevsky and the debates between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.

    As for Morey’s book, I have read both and Letham’s is far superior. Morey’s book is filled in with misquotations and fallacies galore. Do yourself a favor and stick with Letham. Letham and Fairbairn’s books are comparable, though Letham’s book is more detailed and longer. Fairbairn’s was more directed to Protestant missionaries.


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