Response to A Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy, Part I
- *From the **Paredwka: Catching the
* blog by Benjamin Harju
A friend of mine from Facebook asked me to read Robert Koester's book "A
Lutheran Looks at ... Eastern Orthodoxy" 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:
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
*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
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
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
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
Next time I will focus on *Section Two, Chapter Five - The Meaning of
Salvation: Theosis.* This is where things get sticky.
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