Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Andrew Louth’s Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology

Andrew Louth. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. IVP Academic, 2013. 172 Pages. $15.87 Paperback.

There is possibly no tradition in Christianity that requires an introduction more stringently than Eastern Orthodoxy. With the heart of the tradition residing in Turkey, a history of painful separation from the western church and a complete lack of Augustinian thought in their theology, Eastern Orthodoxy remains true to their roots while the west seemingly forgets or ignores them. But as this tradition has spread further and deeper into the west and won converts, the intrigue and misunderstandings of western believers have revealed themselves. In his book Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (which is based on previous lectures) Andrew Louth attempts to unravel some of the mystery.

The Communication
Eastern Orthodoxy is truly set apart from Western Christianity by the fact that it “sees its faith as expressed, and tested, in prayer and worship” (xix). Or put another way, one must worship in an Orthodox fashion to fully understand their theology. Far from being a reliance on experience, this speaks to the great importance the Orthodox worship structure plays in their communication of their faith. For Western minds built around systematic theology and clear enunciation of doctrines within a system, this type of organic presentation can be disorienting and seem unrefined. Though the chapters and subsections of Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology are organized to facilitate a systematic approach, there remains an organic expression of the faith that is evidenced by the persistent references to future and past chapters.

Fundamental to this organic expression is Andrew Louth’s strong dependency on quotes from the Divine Liturgy and Orthodox prayers. Western Christians will find the language, wording, and definitions of liturgical elements a potential distraction from the crucial and exciting perspectives that are presented. This problem manifests itself overwhelmingly in chapter 8, entitled “Time and Liturgy,” which is in fact one of the most interesting and informative chapters in the entire book. With this in mind, the book stands as a great introduction for those who already have some familiarity with Eastern Orthodoxy. Those who are approaching the subject anew may struggle to enjoy and appreciate this intriguing book despite its valuable content.

The Content
In a general way, Introducing Eastern Orthodoxy moves in the order of the Nicene Creed moving from God, Christ, man and closing with the second coming. Chapters 1-4 discuss God, creation and Christ at length, with many profound insights. Given a completely different starting base, typically a quotation from the church fathers, Louth is able to present Orthodox truths from a variety of perspectives. Occasionally Louth steps on the toes of Evangelical sensibility when stating that the church hears a “living voice in the bishops” (5) and that the Scriptures were “written and re-written” (8). But even among these statements it is fascinating to see the dogma of the Trinity and Christ portrayed in the light of church tradition.

Despite how Protestants may disagree with these views, they have not led or amounted to a breakout of charismatic apostles, liberal rebels or mass rejection of the church as has been seen in mainline Protestantism. Placing obvious and necessary disagreements aside, there are interesting things to be learned from these perspectives and their reliance on church history and tradition.

Chapter 3, entitled “The doctrine of creation,” stands out in this dense set of opening chapters and even manages to eclipse the outstanding sections on Jesus Christ (chapter 4). Louth’s articulation of the early church fathers’ views on creation ex nihlo, the “absolute difference” between God and creation (36) and creation as not “intrinsically opposed to Creator” (39) are outstanding insights for an ever increasing material Christianity.

Chapters 5-9, which cover sin, the fall, anthropology, the sacraments and eschatology, will prove difficult in some ways for Protestant readers. It is within these invaluable chapters that Protestant readers will see repetitive disagreement with the theological traditions of Augustine and the Reformation. Given the intention of Andrew Louth, an introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy, these chapters are gems. They are clearly communicated and overwhelmingly practical in their use of Biblical texts and reliance on the tradition of the early fathers. Far from leaving everything at a doctrinal level, each of these subjects is brought back down into the realities of Eastern Orthodox worship and application. It is at these points in particular that Protestant readers can engage their own paradigms and learn some valuable lessons.

Chapter 9, concerning eschatology, ends the book in a rather abrupt and non-fulfilling manner. Eastern Orthodoxy here, more than in previous chapters, lays down “a boundary, beyond which is heresy” (27) instead of clear dogmas. But for Protestant readers, these boundaries will seem to be far too wide and fanciful. It is in this chapter that the least persuading reliance on church tradition comes to light. Despite the opportunity to defend some controversial subjects on the basis of Scripture, Andrew Louth chooses to highlight difficult quotes in communicating the importance of universal eschatology over individual eschatology (145-152), disagreements over purgatory (154-155) and the possibility of universal salvation (157-159).

Despite these nuances and difficulties for Protestant readers, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology is in fine form regarding its content and insight. Though more simple, lengthy and Protestant oriented books are available, this book truly communicates the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy in all its paradoxical wonder.
Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. He blogs theological musings and a running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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