Under Western Eyes
Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective
reviewed by Robert W. Grano
The revised edition of a book first published in 1994, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is written as an introduction to Orthodoxy for Protestants by an Evangelical who came to know Orthodoxy during his time as a visiting professor of Christian studies at Moscow State University. He examines Orthodoxy in a mainly nonpolemical manner and hopes that the book “will contribute to a spirit of mutual respect, toleration, and even support.” For the most part he succeeds admirably.
This edition includes a new seventeen-page epilogue on the state of Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue. A companion volume edited by Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, has also been revised and reissued.
After arguing in the first chapter that Evangelicals need to learn about and engage in dialogue with the Orthodox, and that exposure to Orthodoxy can enrich Evangelical experience, Clendenin proceeds to a sixteen-page whirlwind history of the Orthodox Church. It is a model of concision that manages to omit nothing of importance.
In the following four chapters he describes what he sees as the hallmarks of Orthodoxy likely to be either unknown to or misunderstood by Evangelicals: apophaticism, iconography, the relationship of Scripture and Tradition, and the idea of theosis, or deification. Speaking as an Orthodox, I think he shows his perceptiveness in choosing these four, rather than other issues such as the role of the Virgin Mary, veneration of and prayer to the saints, and the sacraments, in which the Orthodox view is subtly but substantially different from the Catholic view with which Evangelicals are much more familiar. He says, in other words, let us understand these four things and then we can talk about Mary, the saints, and the sacraments.
Clendenin is quite sympathetic to Orthodox ideas, especially about the place of mystery in the life of the Church. He takes his Protestant brethren kindly but firmly to task for eschewing the elements of mystery inherent in the Christian message, and replacing them with an often-dry rationalism. He states that the nature of Christianity is essentially mysterious, and that the West has the “tendency to avoid [mystery] rather than adore it.” He goes on to say that Orthodoxy’s emphasis on adoration rather than explanation does not mean that the Orthodox are anti-rational. It is not an either/or proposition; one need not be rationalistic to be rational, and neither does an anti-rationalistic approach mean a descent into irrationality.
In the final section of the book Clendenin analyzes Orthodoxy from an Evangelical viewpoint, in a way (again, speaking as an Orthodox) that suggests that the fundamental disagreement between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is ecclesiological. The difficulty is that he nowhere articulates his own understanding of the Church and therefore makes it difficult to engage his critique.
His most acute criticism of Orthodoxy has to do with her insistence that she is the one true Church of Christ on earth, which, he says, “beggars the Christian imagination.” He argues this way: The Orthodox Church believes itself to be the true Church; therefore, the Orthodox must believe that the Holy Spirit is limited to working within its boundaries; but the Spirit obviously does work in other communions; therefore, the Orthodox claim to be the true Church cannot be true.
The problem, an Orthodox would respond, is that the fact that Orthodoxy believes itself to be the true Church in no way requires the belief that the Holy Spirit operates only within her boundaries. Orthodoxy holds that the grace of the Holy Spirit works in other Christian communions, but holds also that although God is perfectly free to work outside the “sacramental structure” he has set up, we must maintain “that which has been once delivered.”
Despite this failure to engage the actual Orthodox understanding of the Church, Eastern Orthodox Christianity remains a very valuable entry in the ongoing dialogue between Evangelicals and the Orthodox. It is well worth reading by the faithful of both groups.
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