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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Meanwhile, new research potential surfaced in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and the liberation of a number of national Orthodox churches from state intervention and control. Fresh research into the Orthodox churches of Russia and eastern Europe has begun to replace commonly-held assumptions here as well. One key example lies in post-Communist studies on the state of the Russian Orthodox Church just prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution. For the greater part of the 20th century, the assumption was that the church was stagnating just prior to the revolution. With welcome new access to government and church archives and other materials, researchers have begun uncovering a much different story. Far from stagnating, the Russian Orthodox Church was actually engaged in a process of reform that was effectively ended by the revolution. Marked by an almost militant atheism, the new Communist government squashed the reform movement, thrusting the church into an era of defensiveness. The story of the Orthodox Church under Communism is also receiving fresh consideration, with exciting new work being done on the lives and faith of ordinary Russians during the Communist Era.

Research into the Orthodox churches of Russia and eastern Europe is brimming with exciting challenges and is likely to return substantial results in the coming years. Yet while careful research has helped to correct misconceptions surrounding the major contributing events to the Great Schism, we are still missing a series of truly global histories of Christianity, histories that eschew a western perspective and integrate the churches of east and west into a single story.

For readers interested in a thoughtful and accessible introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy, Timothy (Kallistos) Ware's The Orthodox Church (Penguin 1993) is short, beautifully written, and inexpensive. Father Ware was born in England and joined the Orthodox Church in his mid-20s. A noted scholar, Father Ware is also a bishop in the Orthodox Church. He is a talented interpreter of the Orthodox tradition for a western audience. He has also made a significant contribution to our understanding of Christian spirituality by participating in the translation of the Philokalia, a collection of classical Orthodox texts by spiritual masters from the 4th to the 15th centuries.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is it inappropriate to categorize Eastern Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism, despite their common history?
2.     Does excommunication play a role in the Great Schism? Explain.
3.     How can scholars help to facilitate dialogue between the eastern and western perspectives?
4.     Why is it important to consider the effects of communism when examining the Eastern Orthodox Church?


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