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.