Exploring the Twain 3 – Hurdles to Studying Eastern Orthodoxy

My current series is Exploring the Twain, in which I offend (unintentionally) evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike.  I am, at this point, an equal opportunity offender. The intent of the series is to examine the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity.  My hypothesis is this: Western Christianity has been so impacted by philosophical forces – including but not limited to Neo-Platonism and Modernism – that the only way to examine it is in light of the Eastern Church, which purports to have preserved the original Apostolic Christianity without change.

So far I have looked mainly at the early history of the Western Church, with an emphasis on the Neo-Platonism and Manichaean influences of Augustine, who is still technically revered by the Eastern Church but is occasionally called a heretic.  Augustine, in my opinion, did indeed have some wacko ideas which has skewed Western Christianity, such as the concept of “original sin” and our inheriting Adam’s guilt. Luther corrected much of Augustinian thinking (not all), but Calvin took the rest of the church (what is now evangelicalism, even if you don’t consider yourself Calvinist) further down Augustine’s path.  More on that at a later time.

While all this was going on, the Eastern Orthodox Church was basically ignored by the West, and vice versa.  Most Augustinian writing was not even translated into Greek (the adopted language of the Eastern Church) and again, vice versa.   In looking at the development of the Eastern Church, I have been reading numerous articles and books, such as Berkhof’s The History of Christian Doctrines, Three Views of Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicalism, and Encountering the Mystery by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the collected Orthodox churches.

What I have found in my reading so far is that this is not necessarily an easy task.

Hurdles to understanding

Eastern Orthodoxy is not easy for the Western mind to apprehend, because, well, it’s Eastern.  Way Eastern.  Their commitment to apophatic theology – defining God and other things by what they are not – make comparing theologies an apples – oranges kind of thing.  And, they define words differently. Justification is not seen in the Roman law court sense, and grace is not Augustinian (“unmerited favor”) but rather refers to God’s “energies.”  Even “theology” is not the same; in Orthodoxy, theology is not the study of God or what we know about God, it is a gift of revelation.  As Bartholomew puts it, “It is not taught; rather, it is caught.”

It’s almost like speaking 2 different languages.  Which, I should add, explains much of the misunderstanding by the West.

I found it interesting that nearly everything I read that was critical of the Eastern Church was written by a Calvinist.  And, like most such critiques by Calvinists, they mostly pointed out where the Orthodox were wrong for not being Calvinists.  This, by the way, isn’t helpful – and I find myself siding with whoever isn’t Calvinist, simply for that reason.

I also found it interesting that those who attempt to bridge the Twain, such as Bradley Nassif and Timothy Ware, are occasionally criticized by other Eastern Orthodox folks for being too Westernized.  Besides the Augustinian gap, there is also a pre- and post-Enlightenment gap that many of the Orthodox really don’t seem to like to cross.  Consequently, reading Bartholomew’s book was often a challenge, as my Western-category questions were not getting answered. Instead, I occasionally felt like I was reading some book on Zen; the Eastern thought process is often that different.

My hypothesis

My hypothesis, which I mentioned at the outset of this post, seems to have, in part, failed.  Based on my reading to date, it seems that while the Eastern Church lays claim to the unchanged Apostolic Faith, they too have been impacted by Neo-Platonism.  While this is a fairly common charge, and one which is typically denied by the Orthodox, it does seem quite obvious and even seems more pronounced (although taking a different turn than Augustine’s).

My next post will deal with the Neo-Platonist influences in the Eastern Church.

In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  1. If you are an evangelical, how do you – or would you try to –  understand Eastern Orthodoxy?
  2. If you are Orthodox or familiar with the Eastern Church, what do you see are the major issues between East and West?
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    7 Responses to “Exploring the Twain 3 – Hurdles to Studying Eastern Orthodoxy”

    • aldenswan.com » Blog Archive » Exploring the Twain 4 – Neo-Platonism and Eastern Orthodoxy Says:

      […] my last post in this series, I promised to examine the neo-Platonist influences in Eastern Orthodoxy.  If I […]

    • YouKnowMe Says:

      You mention that reading Bartholomew felt like reading a Zen treatise, and point out that this is due to very different thought processes between East and West. To me this is the central issue. It provides the canvas motif upon which all other thinking is painted. This, in turn, explains why certain philosophic points of view can have greater influence in one tradition than another, or why even the same view can have different interpretations (i.e. your mention of Neo-Platonism taking a different turn in the East).

      It’s worth noting that elements of the Western Church that have adopted some degree of Eastern thinking (e.g. some elements of the Evangelical Charismatics) have also adopted, perhaps sometimes unknowingly, the differing Eastern definitions of the technical theological terms you describe: justification as more than a legal exchange, grace as an actual activity of God (rather than a warm blanket of generic favor), and theology itself as involving revelation and praxis. Which is, BTW, a move that I favor.

    • Theodotus Says:

      I can think of only one other thing that could be of help. There is a forum (I have been on several but this one is the ONLY one I can recommend).
      The folks at monachos.net are wonderful and there is a patristic library to boot! They can answer most if any question one might have. And, these are good answers and well thought out. The site is run by a Deacon in the Orthodox Church and there are many Priests that contribute. Here is the link:
      http://www.monachos.net/content/

      Have a great weekend

      -a sinner
      Theodotus.

      PS.. I came across your blog entirely by accident.. I am an IT Systems Director at a large University.

    • me Says:

      Theodotus, thanks for the response, and the links. I’ll add them to my growing list of things to read.

    • Theodotus Says:

      I do have one more recommendation. There is a nice podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio that is well done (from an Eastern Point of view) but from a person who is a convert and a Priest [Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick]. Also of Orthodox wiki fame [http://orthodoxwiki.org/Main_Page]
      see:
      http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/orthodoxyheterodoxy

      Make sure you start at the FIRST podcast. Terms are important.

      hope this helps
      -a sinner

      Theodotus

    • Theodotus Says:

      I hope the previous post went through ok.. I do not see it on the blog.. probably needs to be moderated…

      2. If you are Orthodox or familiar with the Eastern Church, what do you see are the major issues between East and West?

      Ah, this question I asked many many times. The single biggest issue is the Papacy. Authority. This is the reason I am not Roman Catholic. This is a very polemic issue. According to history, prior to ~1054 there was never a single head over the church. There were Popes (originally a familiar name for an hierarch). But not in the capacity of being head over all. My studies indicated that from the times of the Apostles up through the 800’s the church was Conciliar or governed and guided by Councils of Bishops. For a reference [Roman Catholic by the way, but still the best one]
      1. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology http://fwd4.me/7zD

      So, the Roman Catholic Church is not Conciliar.
      There are also problems with the creed and the Filoque addition by a non-conciliar council.
      These are the main reasons.
      The Eastern Orthodox hold that the current Bishop of Rome (the Pope if you will) is still the First among equals, First in honor, not obedience.

      I am no expert on these things.
      Here is a reference from an Orthodox point of view:
      1. Popes and Patriarchs: An Orthodox Perspective on Roman Catholic Claims http://fwd4.me/7zK

      I have other opinions by observation too… but these are not important.

      Needless to say, 18 months ago, I took the step of becoming Orthodox as seeing it as the Earliest church, the one who compiled our current Scriptures and the one that has not changed in over 2000 years.

      I could share much much more…

      I look to only provide information and ask God to bless it to his Glory.

      -a sinner
      Theodotus

      PS.. Theodotus is the name I took when I was Chrismated into the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church.

    • Theodotus Says:

      1. If you are an evangelical, how do you – or would you try to – understand Eastern Orthodoxy?
      I was an evangelical for over 30 years. About 18 months ago, I converted to Orthodoxy. I was of the VERY conservative sort, Bible Church, evangelical, reformed. I was asked to teach a class on Church History 3 years ago. I taught the Adult SS class. In my studies, reading history, and early church writings, I could not shake the fact that the early church was NOT like what I experienced as a believer in Christ. My questions became almost entirely Historical. I read, and read some more. Here are a few better references, all of which are from evangelical or reformed camps. There are many more, you mention a few too from Metropolitan Ware.
      1. Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective http://fwd4.me/7yl
      2. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader http://fwd4.me/7yn
      3. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition http://fwd4.me/7yp
      4. Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes http://fwd4.me/7yq
      5. Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy A Reformed Perspective http://fwd4.me/7ys

      Long story short. I did not want to split the Church [a bad habit in most Protestant Congregations]. My pastor could not answer the historical questions I had, so I took a leave of absence to explore, pray and determine what to to with the 1500 years of history prior to the reformation.

      The reading was helpful, but I soon learned that rational thought and proofs lead only so far.
      I came across this book:
      1. Thirsting For God in a Land of Shallow Wells http://fwd4.me/7yz
      Written by a teacher of philosophy
      and this blog:
      1. http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/
      and this posting on that blog:
      http://fwd4.me/7z0

      There is much much more to this story, but maybe later. You were asking for resources.
      Ill answer the 2 question in the next posting. This one is getting long.
      -a sinner
      Theodotus

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