Response to A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy, Part I

From the Paredwka: Catching the Ball blog by Benjamin Harju

A friend of mine from Facebook asked me to read Robert J. Koester's book A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 2012) and give it a review from an Orthodox perspective. Specifically he would like me to determine if the book accurately describes Eastern Orthodoxy, as opposed to what many may think Eastern Orthodox Christians believe.

The book is divided into three Sections:
1.History
2.Teachings
3.Impressions
In this first part I will review the entirety of Part 1: History.

The Book's Platform

First, though, I would like to quote the stated purpose of the book series "A Lutheran Looks at..." according to what is written on the back cover of the book.
A Lutheran Looks at ... series provides a confessional Lutheran perspective on the teachings and practices of other denominations. The authors all subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions and conduct their evaluation on that basis. Their clear analysis, with gospel emphasis, will help you understand friends or relatives who belong to other denominations and will prepare you to better share your faith with them.
So I will try to keep in perspective that this book is written from a Lutheran perspective. However, it must be pointed out that even among those calling themselves "confessional Lutherans" there is a bit of variation when it comes to evaluating early and medieval history. The author of this book, Robert Koester, is only one voice out of many. He is an editor of the WELS Northwestern Publishing House, a former parish pastor, and an author of books and Bible studies from the WELS perspective. This book reflects that association, which members of the LCMS and ELS may find uncomfortable at times (or may not).

Part I: History

This Section is divided into four Chapters:
1. How the Orthodox Church Began
2. The Great Division
3. Russian Orthodoxy
4. Orthodoxy Today
Each section is begun with a first-hand account of the author's visit to an Orthodox Christian parish in his local area. Then he proceeds into the chapter's topic.

Right away it should be pointed out that the author is visiting churches that are not necessarily Eastern Orthodox. In Chapter 1 he visits an Armenian church. He mixes in Oriental Orthodox (like the Armenians) and Eastern Orthodox in his book, despite the title's focus on "Eastern Orthodoxy." What this means is that, even though the title of the book focuses on "Eastern" Orthodoxy, really the Oriental Orthodox are part of that focus. So the book actually deals with a general Orthodoxy [or Eastern Christianity - ed.].

Generally, Chapter 1 (How the Orthodox Church Began) is good. Much of his material is familiar, most likely taken from books I myself have read (some of the phraseology matches). It's a nice, simplified account of early Church history for the average layperson.

It should be pointed out that at times the author not only relates objective data but also mixes in his opinions rather than reserving his judgments to a separate section in the chapter. So, for instance, instead of simply describing the relation of the church to the state in this chapter he first tells the reader that the relationship is unhealthy (p.6). This issue intensifies a great deal once we get into the chapters about Teachings. The concern I wish to raise at the outset is that the author makes judgments for the reader without always providing enough information for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This is not a scholarly book, but a book of data mixed with strong opinions and personal reflections. The opinions are presented as if they were facts in and of themselves, as if they should be accepted outright. I will try to limit my commentary to the author's representation of the data while ignoring as many opinions as I can.

The following areas are worth noting in terms of accuracy:

  • The author accurately identifies the Orthodox Church as the original Church. (Pages 3-4)
  • The author describes the rise of monasticism (viz. monks, monasteries, etc.) as coming from those seeking a higher level of spirituality. It might be better, since this is an Orthodox history, to say they wanted a more focused spirituality. Since monasticism is built on humility, prayer, faith, and love it is misleading to suggest it is about having a higher spirituality (which suggests superiority). The heights of spirituality in the early Church as well as in Orthodoxy today are available to the lay person in the world as well as the monk in isolation or in a monastery, because the spiritual life between the monk and layman are all about the same things. So in this case the author has misstated the point. (Pages 5-6)
Chapter 2 is a fair chapter, too. I disagree that the final nail in the coffin between the Western and Eastern churches was in 1453 when the Orthodox people rejected the union agreement made in Florence by their leadership. It is more accurate to say, as the author does later on, that the real break happened between 1054 and the fourth crusade when Western (Roman) Christians sacked the Eastern capitol of Constantinople. But for the average lay person this is a small issue. It's important to note, though, that usually the split between East and West is tied to the 1054 date.

In this chapter the author tries to explain the difference in approach between East and West, but seems to fail. He writes:

The Eastern Orthodox did not care as much about knowing the details of Christian doctrine (at least beyond the doctrines of the Trinity and Jesus' divine and human natures developed in the first four ecumenical councils) as they did about about experiencing the blessings of union with Christ and creating a heavenly worship experience. The West wanted to know what Scripture taught on all aspects of Christian teaching, which gave rise to debate, discussion and a heavy emphasis on teaching. (Page 20)
This gives the impression that the Orthodox are uninterested in the "details" of the Scriptures. The author seems completely unaware of the significance of the other three Ecumenical Councils, or the role the fathers of the Church play in the teaching and interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps the author is assuming too much because he does not see the intense obsession with defining everything under the theoretical microscope that characterizes the West. The Orthodox Church teaches what Scripture teaches on all counts, and continues to do so. This is one of the great values of the Councils and the Church Fathers and approved great teachers. Perhaps the author comes to this conclusion because he does not see in Orthodoxy the intense in-fighting that ultimately shattered Western Christendom into many factions.

In Orthodoxy a theologian is not one who thinks and defines and narrows, but is one who leads a holy life of repentance, faith, love, and prayer by God's Grace. How can one be fit to handle the divine teachings of our Lord if he or she has not first submitted to them and been transformed by them? A good theologian is one who is him- or herself transformed by Christ's teachings and kingdom, not an academic who comes up with clever questions. Really what is behind this mischaracterization of the East is a difference in methodology, not in goal. The West and East equally want to know God and be faithful to Him.

Orthodox teaching on Scripture is very thorough (consider great teachers like Irenaeus, John of Damascus, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and Maximos the Confessor to name a few). Perhaps it is that we have so many expounders of the holy Scriptures, and so many thorough presentations of divine truth that the author mistook these for relics of the past and not current movers and shakers in Orthodox theology that they are?

Chapter 3 focuses on Russian Orthodoxy. This chapter is decent. I like his impression of the mixture of formality and informality at the Orthodox Liturgy, because I have the same impression. The author spends an inordinate time relating the story of Avvakum, though he admits he does so from personal interest.

Chapter 4 focuses on Orthodoxy today. This chapter seemed relatively fine.

Overall the first four chapters are decent for a layperson to read. Since this is just history (i.e. neutral data) there should not be room for too much error when it comes to accurately representing Orthodoxy. Those areas which actually seemed to represent Orthodoxy inaccurately I have noted above.

Next time I will focus on Section Two, Chapter Five - The Meaning of Salvation: Theosis. This is where things get sticky.