The Eastern Orthodox church (history and theology) has slipped under my radar, so I thought I should remedy that. A few weeks back, I picked up Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Press, rev. 1993). I was not disappointed – it is an awesome introduction to the history, theology, and piety of the Eastern churches. Now, I’m quite far from agreement with the details of EO’s theology, but their history and certain aspects of their theology are fascinating and certainly worth a read. (Side note: it also looks great on the shelf next to the other Penguin church history classics, such as Chadwick, Southern, and Vidler.)
The book is split up into two main parts. First, Ware (EO bishop of Diokleia at the time of writing) takes a trek through the history of the EO church, from the patristics to the latter part of the 20th century. In the second half, he specifically and briefly explains the theology of the EO church.
One thing I liked was how Ware described the early church councils (the big six from 325-681 AD): “All Christians agree in regarding these things [the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation] as ‘mysteries’ which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent people from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all” (p. 20).
I also learned a ton from the third chapter wherein Ware describes the Great Schism (of the Eastern and Western church) of 1054 – which in some ways began in the 8th century. “In this long and complicated process, many different influences were at work. The schism was conditioned by cultural, political, and economic factors; yet its fundamental cause was not secular but theological” (p.44). The theological factors were 1) Papal claims of authority and 2) the Filioque (the Nicene Creed phrase that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; EO doesn’t affirm “and the Son”). I learned that there was a lot more to the split than the Filioque alone.
At the same time, even after the key date of 1054 the Eastern and Western churches retained some affinities and unity. What really made the gulf nearly impossible to cross was the Western church’s crusades, which the Eastern churches loathed (p. 60). Also, though I don’t have space/time to go into it, there were two major attempts at reunion – one in the 13th century and one in the 15th century, yet as we know they were unsuccessful.
The missionary endeavors of the EO to the area of the former Soviet Union was captivating to read. The EO mission to the Slavs – chiefly led by brothers Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) cannot be missed as one studies Eastern Orthodoxy. Their work at translation and teaching seemingly ended in failure, but the effects of their work was widespread and lasted well past their deaths.
Ware also discusses the church under Islamic rule as well as the tension Orthodoxy faced in the relationship between church and state. I was also amazed at the brutality of 20th century Communism on the EO church – brutality that the EO typically withstood bravely. In fact, Ware writes about how atheism was advanced in Russia and the only “churchly” thing that the state allowed was a single weekly church service. The EO took advantage of this service. Ware himself went to a Russian EO church service in the 1970s that had five sermons which ended with a loud grateful response from the congregation (p. 146). And today we yawn after 20 minutes!
Some other day I’ll write a tad about EO’s theology, but for now I’ll simply recommend this book as a readable introduction to the history and theology of the EO church. It is not for everyone, probably (there are many names and dates!); yet those who love reading church history will be interested. I should also note another reading option (though I haven’t yet read it): a Reformed discussion of the EO church by Robert Letham (see here – and beware of a freaky cover).