Dec 7 2009

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?