If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.
Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.
The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.
The second section, theology, limits the discussion to some key areas without trying to be exhaustive. He covers prayer & icons, Scripture & tradition, Church & sacraments, the Trinity and salvation. He tries to explain the differences in how we tend to view things. There is much misunderstanding that may be rooted in language as well as history. For instance, they ask the deceased saints to pray for them much like you’d ask a friend to pray for you. They believe the saints in heaven are able to hear us. Of course, most Protestants would find such a notion contrary to Scripture. But we are not to think that they have a Roman Catholic view that sees the saints as nearly co-mediators (Mary is one in their view), closer to Christ and able to plead their surplus merit on our behalf.
In the other direction, their exposure to Islam has made it difficult for them to understand the Reformed doctrine of predestination. They display a lack of understanding regarding our doctrinal formulations and view it much like Islam’s view of fate: quite arbitrary. The misunderstandings cut both ways. He does uncover some significant differences in the extent of the fall, the nature of sin and therefore salvation. While we can gain much from them in understanding union with Christ better, we discover a synergistic view of salvation that is similar to Arminianism in many ways. Since we consider (at least most of us Reformed people do) Arminians our brothers though we disagree on this matter, we should consider them brother as well. Their view of the Eucharist is similar to that of transubstantiation but without the philosophical attempt to explain it.
At times I wish he’d develop things more fully. For instance, I wish Letham would have explored the connection between salvation and the sacraments more thoroughly. Their view, like that of Catholicism, seems to be sacerdotalism (salvation thru the sacraments), particularly since they de-emphasize sermons. There is some repetition in his approach as he covers the same ground in multiple places. While repetition is important pedagogically it lengthened the book and some of those pages could have been used to develop important differences and ideas.
Another area, in addition to an emphasis on union with Christ and theodosis, from which we could learn is the focus on the Trinity. Much of evangelicalism, and most hymns, fail to express our trinitarian faith. In particular, those who are not charismatic or Pentecostal tend to neglect the Spirit. The Eastern Orthodox are very focused on the Spirit as an agent of salvation. While we should be Christ-focused (since He accomplished our salvation) we should not neglect the Spirit’s profound and necessary work in the application of salvation to sinners. Since I put together the liturgy for our worship, I try to make sure there is plenty of Scripture (their liturgy has more Scripture than many of us would read in a few weeks’ time) as well as a trinitarian focus in our prayers and confessions.
While we may disagree with our brothers and sisters from the east, there is much we can learn from them. There is much, I think, they could learn from us as well. It would be great if more Reformed Christians read this book to better understand their brother ans sisters who are in Eastern Orthodox churches. Much of the suspicion would diminish, I hope.