“What do Eastern Orthodox Christians believe about…?”

“What do Eastern Orthodox Christians believe about…?” April 26, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy has been getting heightened attention this spring, with Orthodox writer Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option cracking the New York Times bestseller list and Hank Hanegraaff — known to Christian radio listeners as the “Bible Answer Man” — recently announcing his conversion from evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. So where can our readers go to learn more about Orthodox Christianity? Guest-blogger Matt Miller, associate professor of history at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota, recommends a recent publication by two leading scholars.

“What do Orthodox Christians believe about ________?”

As a historian of Russia with a special interest in Orthodox Christianity, I am often asked a version of this question. My conversations often conclude with a suggestion to read an introductory book, such as Timothy Ware’s classic The Orthodox Church. In recent years my recommendations have also included Donald Fairbairn’s Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes and Turning to Tradition, by D. Oliver Herbel. In this post I would like to highlight a significant new resource for understanding the beliefs, values, and practices of Eastern Christians.

Geffert & Stavrou (eds.), Eastern Orthodoxy: The Essential TextsBryn Geffert (Amherst College) and Theofanis G. Stavrou (University of Minnesota) have joined forces to create Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts (Yale University Press, 2016). As specialists in the study of Eastern Orthodoxy, they have compiled a unique and valuable collection of primary sources that presents a panorama of faith and practice from the first to the twenty-first centuries.

The book gathers the texts chronologically; clear and detailed introductions to each document guide readers through a wide variety of historical, theological, political, philosophical, and literary entries. Dozens of high-contrast maps and other images provide helpful orientation and context along the way. One unusual feature of the book is its dual format: in addition to the 447 pages of the printed book, readers also receive an online companion volume, Eastern Orthodox Christianity: Supplemental Texts, a PDF available for download from the publisher’s website. These supplemental documents add another 1,350 pages to this rich collection, with embedded links to a broad range of artwork, music, and film segments. Notable examples include photos of Greek and Russian icons, recordings of works by Peter Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov, and segments of the films Repentance and Island.

Geffert and Stavrou’s book makes an outstanding contribution to the study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity by providing an accessible guided tour of a faith tradition which may not be familiar to many readers with an interest in the history of Christianity. The authors do not assume prior knowledge of Orthodoxy and provide clear definitions and explanatory footnotes on most pages. Many will value the brief bibliography which introduces the most important works on a range of specific topics and periods. The book includes an enormous range of primary sources from multiple languages; some translations are published for the first time in English.

This book presents a rich feast for readers, including main courses, garnishes, and desserts. For example, several foundational doctrinal and liturgical writings are included. The text of the Nicene Creed states the theological conclusions of the ecumenical council of Nicaea, called by Emperor Constantine in 325. This creed articulates a classic statement of the divinity of Jesus Christ: “. . . God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father . . .” (60). The introduction and footnotes provide explanations to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the primary liturgical text of many Eastern churches; the following commentary by Nicholas Cabasilas, a 14th century writer, provides an interpretation of this liturgical work and accompanying rituals. The 1672 Confession of Patriarch Dositheos II of Jerusalem offers a systematic, detailed, and negative response to Patriarch Kyrillos Loukaris of Constantinople, who had been influenced by the Protestant pastor John Calvin.

Reliquary of St. Gregory Palamas
Reliquary of St. Gregory Palamas, Metropolitan Cathedral of Thessaloniki, Greece (CC BY-SA 3.0 OrthoArchitectDU)

The authors also have selected classic theological reflections by a number of influential Eastern teachers, including Athanasius, whose “On the Incarnation of the Word” argues for the view adopted in the Nicene Creed: “. . . he is not man only, but also God, and the Word and wisdom of the true God” (55). Maximus Confessor’s work “The Church’s Mystagogy” states that the church plays an essential role in the salvation of humans: “As different as they are by language, places, and customs, they are made one by it through faith” (146). “On the Divine Images” by John of Damascus provides a key 8th century defense of the veneration of icons in response to the iconoclast charge of idolatry. He clarifies, “I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake…” (198). The writings of Gregory Palamas allow the reader to observe the 14th century development of hesychasm, which the authors define as a search for “inner peace, quietude, and mystical union with God through prayer” (207). An example of early 20th century reflection comes from Sergei Bulgakov; in “Heroism and Asceticism: Reflections on the Religious Nature of the Russian Intelligentsia” he critiques the dogmatic opposition to faith among westernized intellectuals and calls for a socially engaged Christianity.

Key figures are highlighted in a variety of documents: Emperor Constantine, the 4th century Roman ruler who decreed toleration of Christianity; Kirill and Methodius, the scholarly monks who worked in the 9th century as missionary translators among the Slavs; and Leo Tolstoy, the giant of Russian literature whose religious writings led him into opposition with the Russian church hierarchy. The experiences of ordinary believers are included by documentation of popular beliefs and traditions, the practices of priests, and recent popular song lyrics. The growth of monasticism is presented by documents on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Pachomius, and Basil. Key documents illuminate the unique elements of non-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy (such as the Coptic church), Byzantine Rite Catholicism, and Old Belief in Russia. Several texts present contrasting views on more recent controversial issues, such as the ordination of women and the ecumenical movement.

The work also provides a range of garnishes and seasoning for contrast and context, including a report on Arius’s 4th century teaching on Jesus, Emperor Julian’s rejection of Christianity, and Cardinal Humbert’s 1054 anathema against the Patriarch of Constantinople. One section includes several examples of Soviet anti-Orthodox propaganda and alternative rituals, such as a Komsomol Christmas carol. The book also presents dessert options (especially in the supplemental texts), such as a rich presentation of icons with commentary, liturgical music, and the literary creations of Boris Pasternak (“Poems of Yury Zhivago”), Anna Akhmatova (“Lamentation”), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (“Matryona’s House”).

Theo Stavrou
Theofanis Stavrou – University of Minnesota

This is a dynamic volume which reflects the energy, tensions, conflicts, and paradoxes of the history of Christianity. It does not offer a simplistic history with artificial resolutions of issues. The authors have chosen to allow different voices to speak freely on controversial questions. The introduction claims to avoid “any particular religious, philosophical, or theoretical lens. We strive to portray the beliefs and history of Eastern Orthodox Christians with sympathy and respect, and we strive as well to avoid rendering any judgments—positive or negative—on those beliefs. While acknowledging the practical limits of pure objectivity, we seek objectivity nevertheless” (xxii). Several contrasts emerge on multiple occasions: “This book grapples repeatedly with the tension between Orthodoxy as an ecumenical, universal confession and Orthodoxy as multiple representations of distinct cultures” (xxiii).

A complete version of this review is forthcoming from the Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, volume 32. Matt’s other publications include The American YMCA and Russian Culture: The Preservation and Expansion of Orthodox Christianity, 1900-1940 (Lexington Books, 2013) and “Eastern Christianity in the Twin Cities: The Churches of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1989-2014” (Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, 2015).

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