Eastern and Western Theology | A Primer

Eastern and Western Theology | A Primer May 29, 2024

What are some differences between Eastern and Western Theology?

In all my years of ministry since 1993 I’ve never heard this question from a parishioner who has come to the altar for prayer.

Would you explain to me some of the differences in the way we think about Theology between the Eastern and the Western churches?

I have however heard this question more than once in seminary settings. How is it that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic are both within the greater Orthodox family of denominations?

The question is usually skewed from a Western world mindset, so it really is about Eastern Orthodoxy.

aNE neighbors

To understand Eastern Orthodoxy it might be good to start with historical geography. The Eastern Orthodox Church starts in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul.

Once we establish the locale, it’s good to think of their neighbors. Who are the neighbors of the Eastern Church from the outset?

To the South is the remnant of the Primitive Church in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, and some of Persia (Turkey).

In the West is the Western Church, the Roman Empire (Roman Catholicism).

To the North at the time are conglomerates that haven’t actually formed into Eastern European countries or Russia yet.

Who is the Eastern neighbor of Eastern Orthodoxy? Constantinople is North-central in what is known as the ancient Near East (aNE). So the East is the neighbor of the aNE.

What religions from the East would influence Eastern Orthodoxy?

Eastern influence

I can’t say the essentials of Christian doctrine have been influenced by Eastern Religions. However, spiritual practices and ways of thinking about Theology have been influenced by the neighbors to the East.

One major difference is the way the West and the East approaches Theological mystery.

The West has devoted much time and scholarship to defining what a mystery is – Cataphatic Theology.

The Eastern Church has sought to approach the mystery while not analyzing the mystery – Apophatic Theology.

There are many ways these two historical ways of doing Theology play out. One example is in the defining of the mystery.

Cataphatic Theology seeks to define what a mystery is.

Apophatic Theology seeks to establish what a mystery is not.

JVI | Apophatic Tea-ology | 10.25.17

a vignette

I can remember sitting on an interdenominational council for discipleship studies with some true scholars. One of them was a master at different streams of historical Theology. I’m calling him the master.

We were working together to define a Biblical concept. The master kept interjecting with comments like “That’s not it,” or “Not quite.”

After awhile of this, someone else on the council asked the master why he was only sharing negative input.

The master quickly replied, “Oh I’m not telling you what it is. I am simply telling you what it’s not” (Apophatic Praxis).

All of a sudden we all realized we were all standing a little too close to a Biblical mystery. A sense of awe and reverence settled into the council’s dialogue.

setting a fence

I think of Mt. Sinai. Moses takes us there, right to the top to witness Yahweh Himself, although he is not allowed to see Yahweh’s face.

The rest of Israel sets a barrier around the foot of the mountain, afraid to approach the fiery top lest they die.

This healthy fear of God is prevalent in Eastern Orthodox Theology. We can only go so far in approaching a true mystery, but it must remain a mystery. Like Israel our Theology sets a barrier, sets a fence around the mystery, but it must remain a mystery.

There are many nuances of Western and Eastern Theology. I have sought only to share a little background and at least one difference in approaching mystery in Theological reflection.

To read more from the Theology Archive CLICK

Browse Our Archives