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

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  • Christopher Orr
    *From the **Paredwka: Catching the Ball* * blog by Benjamin Harju *
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 5, 2012
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      *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
      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

      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

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

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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