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Book Review: The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware; Orthodox History

So many western Christians are ignorant about Eastern Christianity and The Orthodox Church.  It’s not that we consciously snub our noses at Eastern Christianity; it’s that we virtually ignore them altogether.  Our historical theology books almost pretend they don’t exist.  We summarize the different theological views in Christianity by making reference to Protestants and Catholics, but rarely ever Eastern Orthodoxy.  I might have guessed that after getting a Bachelors of Religion and a Masters of Divinity, I might know a bit about viewpoints of Eastern Christians.  Instead, my own ignorance has led me to search it out.  For the next several months, I will be posting almost exclusively about Eastern Orthodoxy, starting with a 4-part book summary/review of Timothy Ware’s introductory book on The Orthodox Church.  I have also provided audio and PDF versions of this book summary/review for those interested in reading or listening through.  My summary/review will cover Orthodox history, tradition, and theology, ending with my own criticism and conclusion on Ware’s book.  Enjoy.

Book Review: The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware (here is the whole review in PDF)

Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia).  The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition.  New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.

Born in England and converted from Anglicanism to the Orthodox faith at the age of 24, Timothy Ware became Kallistos Ware upon his entrance to the priesthood in 1966, the same year he began lecturing at Oxford on Eastern Orthodox Studies.  Although Ware has become a well received historian in Orthodox studies, he is no mere academician.  Since 1982, Kallistos has assisted the Ecumenical Patriarch himself, acting as metropolitan Kallistos over the archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britan under the title Bishop of Diokleia.  Furthermore, he has traveled throughout Greece and therefore is familiar with the monastic life of the East (e.g. Mt Athos and the monastery of St. John at Patmos).

Having been educated in the West, Ware’s historical and theological overview of Orthodoxy has become a widely used introduction to Orthodox Christianity in Western schools and is written with western sensitivities in mind.  This makes his book an excellent starting point for the exploration of Orthodoxy for Christians in the West.  The first part of Ware’s treatment covers the history of the Orthodox Church, while part two takes up various theological themes and also looks at the worship of the Orthodox Church.  With unprecedented ecumenical interests in the West still active, Ware’s book is still an indispensible resource.  Because Christians in the West are largely unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, rather than a mere book review, I have sought to make available a significant portion of the book’s content while giving only brief attention to criticism.

:: Orthodox History ::

Early Christianity

The history of the Orthodox Church starts at the same time and place that the history of the Catholic Church begins.  Both Catholic and Orthodox tradition share in common many of the early figures of Christianity.  For example, St. Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch who wrote seven short letters on his way to Rome to be martyred, emphasized both a hierarchical and sacramental church, calling the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” (13).  Catholics and Orthodox alike have canonized St. Ignatius and have adopted many of his teachings.  The same could be said of St. Cyprian of Carthage and his emphasis on the unity and salvific exclusivity of the church (14).

In Ware’s estimation, the reign of Constantine, his Christianization of Constantinople, and his instigation of the Council of Nicaea “mark the Church’s coming of age” (20).  Nicaea, and the six Councils that followed, did not seek to explain the mystery of how God might become man, but simply sought to draw a fence around that mystery by excluding certain misunderstandings (20).  These councils were not overly abstract and theoretical, Ware assures us, but were concerned with the message of human salvation (20).  The reader is reminded by the author that the doctrine of theosis (deification)—a doctrine having centrality only in Orthodox soteriology—was taught by St. Athanasius, a champion of Trinitarian Orthodoxy during this critical period of doctrinal development in the church.  It was Athanasius who proclaimed: “God became human that we might be made god” (21).

Protestants who tend to focus only on the theological declarations of the early Councils should notice Ware’s attention to the Council’s ecclesiastical declarations—all of which assumed a hierarchical structure of church government and singled out certain places for special honor in ecclesiastical affairs, i.e. the Pentarchy: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (22-23, 26-28).  From an Orthodox perspective, Rome’s mistake was to go beyond her place of pastoral primacy in the Pentarchy (“the first among equals”) and assume for herself supreme power and jurisdiction (27-28).  It was also during the period Ware designates as “The Church of the Seven Councils” that Iconodulism was vindicated in what is now celebrated as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” in 843 C.E. (31).  Veneration of icons was not merely absolved from charges of idolatry or condoned as tolerable.  Rather, the veneration of icons was (and still is) seen as a necessary safeguard for a full and proper doctrine of the incarnation (33).  “The Iconoclast controversy,” Ware concludes, “is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes about Christ’s person. … about human salvation” (33).

Schisms and Attempts at Reunion

Rather than writing off the non-Chalcedonian Christians as mere heretics, Western historians will notice that Ware calls them “Oriental Orthodox Churches,” and he counts their alienation from Chalcedonian Christians as the first major historic division within Christendom, the second being The Great Schism of 1054 between East and West, and the third being the Protestant Schism of the sixteenth century (4).  While Western historians have conveniently dated the Great Schism between East and West as beginning in 1054, Ware is quick to point out that starting in 1009 the Western popes were no longer included in the Diptychs (the Constantinopolitan Patriarch’s lists of other legitimate patriarchs).  It does not appear coincidental that this is also the same year Pope Sergius IV is thought to have written a letter to the patriarch of Constantinople including the Filioque.  Since this sort of omission of the Pope’s name from the Dyptychs is probably “tantamount to a declaration that one is not in communion with [the patriarch of Constantinople],” Ware considers this to be the real (or “technical”) date for the Great Schism (57).

Ware urges that this religious schism must also be seen in light of a larger context, for it takes place within a schism of Eastern and Western civilizations that unfortunately alienated Eastern and Western Christians (46).  Although the schism was due to different developments in Eastern and Western theology and practice (e.g. different theological emphases, different styles of church government, different worship practices), Ware blames the instigation of the schism on a theologian of Charlemagne’s court who accused Eastern Christians of being “heretics” for not accepting the Filioque (51).  The East had no choice but to respond.  As if it was not enough that the Eastern Christians considered the Filioque heresy, tampering with the universal Creed without a universal council was considered a sin against the unity of the church.  Even Pope Leo III himself, in his letter to Charlemagne, strongly objected to tampering with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed by adding the Filioque without an Ecumenical Council (51).

It was this tampering with the creed without ecumenical consultation, along with the papal claims of universal jurisdiction, that ultimately caused the irreconcilable differences that led to the incidents that culminated in the mutual anathemas of 1054.  Exacerbating this formal schism, Crusaders began setting up Latin Patriarchs in the East.  This localized the schism in new ways for ordinary Christians in the East previously unconcerned with the disputes between the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople (59).  This brought the schism down to the popular level.  The infamous forth crusade (1204) would further seal in blood the contentious divisions between Eastern and Western Christendom.  Ware’s understanding of culpability for the schism, however, is not entirely one sided.  He concedes that the East also shares responsibility for fueling the schism.  For example, in the riot of 1182, “many Latin residents at Constantinople were massacred by the Byzantine populace” (61).  Ware concludes that the schism was, for both sides, “a great tragedy” (61).

The first attempt at reunion with the West, The Council of Lyons in 1274, came during the restored Byzantine Empire under the auspices of Emperor Michael VIII (reigned 1259-82).  But this attempt was—to a significant extent at least—motivated by political factors.  Emperor Michael wanted the protection of the pope against the attacks of the Sicilian ruler Charles of Anjou, and ecclesial union was the best way to ensure this help (61-62).

The second attempt at reunion—the Florentine Union (meted out at the Council of Florence, 1438-39)—was accomplished in hopes of military support from the West and thus also largely motivated by political interests.  Although its results were more impressive, this council ultimately suffered a similar fate as the Council of Lyons.  In an official document, the Orthodox accepted the Papal claims, the Double Procession of the Holy Spirit, and the Roman teaching on purgatory (71).  Only one member of the Orthodox party was unable to sign his name to the formula: Mark, Archbishop of Ephesus.  Furthermore, both John VIII and Constantine XI (the last two emperors of Byzantium) held fast to the union.

The Union was proclaimed publicly at Constantinople in 1452, one year before the Turks began their sack of Constantinople.  According to Ware, however, not only were the overwhelming majority of Orthodox clergy and people deeply against the Union, many signatories quickly recanted.  The responses of the Orthodox faithful were unmistakable.  When Isidore, for example, proclaimed the decrees of Florence to Moscow in 1441 he was thrown into prison by the Grand Duke (103).  Orthodox people came to think that the Turkish success in their sack of Constantinople was God’s punishment for the heresy of the Florence Union where Byzantine leaders “betrayed the faith” (103-11).  As for the Archbishop Mark, he was forever canonized as a saint by the Orthodox Church (71).

More recent attempts at unity have looked very different.  Patriarch Athenagoras (in office 1948-72) made “the promotion of world-wide Christian unity” one of his main tasks, one for which he was “attacked by more conservative Orthodox in Greece and elsewhere” (129).  His successor, Patriarch Dimitrios (in office 1972-91), however, continued to pursue to same agenda.  Today, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (elected 1991) “maintains close links with Western Christians” (129).  It would seem, then, that a legacy of ecumenism now exists in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

The Spread of Orthodoxy

Although The Orthodox Church is often accused of not being missionary minded, Ware is concerned to show that Orthodoxy has a strong tradition of missionary outreach.  In his chapter entitled “The Conversion of the Slavs,” he explores the explosive missionary activity of the ninth century.  The missionary work to the Slavs began to take place on a large scale with Patriarch Photius who sent two Greek brothers among the Slavs (Constantine/Cyril and Methodius) who became known as “The Apostles to the Slavs” (73).  Ware unfavorably compares Rome’s insistence on a Latin mass to the missionary practice of the East.  “The Orthodox Church,” Ware exclaims, “has never been rigid in the matter of languages; its normal policy is to hold services in the language of the people” (74).  Although the work of these apostles seemed at first to have ended in failure, Ware considers the conversion of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia, to be the result of their missionary labors (75).

Eastern Orthodoxy especially flourished in Russia, initially in Keiv (before the Mongol invasions brought Kievan Russia to a “sudden and violent end”) but centering eventually in Muscovy.  When Ivan III “The Great” (reigned 1462-1505) married the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor (Constantine XI), he established a link with Byzantium and began assuming the titles of “autocrat” and “Tsar” (an Eastern adaption of the Roman “Caesar”).  The period from 1350 to 1550 Ware considers to be “the golden age in Russian spirituality” and religious art (86).  People began to think of Moscow as “the third Rome,” the new center of Orthodox Christendom.

Ware warns, however, that some depictions and impressions of “Holy Russia” from this period place “too much emphasis on externals” (110).  Nikon the Reformer (1605-81) would later aim to conform Russian Orthodoxy to ancient Greek practices of worship.  He not only persecuted all opposition to his reforms, but also tried to make the Church supreme over the State (113).  This went beyond the Byzantium notion of dyarchy (or symphony) between the sacerdotium and imperium, each supreme in its own sphere, and placed the Patriarch’s authority over the authority of the Tsar.  Because the church had come to be controlled more and more by the state, Nikon wanted to reverse the situation and intervene in civil affairs—even taking on the title “Great Lord” (previously reserved only for the Tsar).

A Council held at Moscow (1666-67) decided in favor of Nikon’s worship reforms but against his political reform, reasserting the Byzantine doctrine of dyarchy (113).  Ware believes this attempt at political supremacy ultimately caused future Tsars to suppress the office of Patriarch, for soon Peter the Great (1682-1725) would issue the Spiritual Regulation of 1721.  This Regulation abolished the office of Patriarch altogether and replaced it with “The Spiritual College” or “The Holy Synod” (114).  Even then, however, the church was not allowed to choose the members of this Holy Synod.  This authority now belonged to the Tsar alone, along with the title “Supreme Judge of the Spiritual College” (114).  There are many interesting parallels here with the history of the papacy in the West with its long chronicles of tug-of-war between ecclesiastical and secular politics.

Orthodoxy Under Persecution

Because the Orthodox are so unified in their doctrinal commitments, rather than dividing Eastern Orthodoxy according to various strands of theological camps, Ware helpfully divides the Orthodox according to social location: 1) those living in a dominantly Muslim culture, 2) those still living in the Church-State alliance of the Byzantine type, 3) those who were (until “recently”) living under Communist rule, 4) those living in the West that comprise what Ware calls “the diaspora,” made up of immigrants and converts (a significant portion of which dwell in North America), and 5) those in various missionary movements in places like East Africa, Japan, China, and Korea.  Category three (those recovering from Communist control) are “by far the largest of the five groups, comprising as it does the Churches of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland, Albania and Czechoslovakia, and amounting to over 85 per cent of the total membership of the Orthodox Church today” (126).

Persecution is a common theme in Orthodox history.  Since the expansion of Islam, Orthodoxy was not allowed to flourish freely under Muslim rule.  This is still true today.  For example, in the “anti-Greek” and “anti-Christian” riot of 1955, “sixty out of the eighty Orthodox churches in the city [Istanbul] were sacked or gutted and incalculable damage was done to Christian property, with widespread raping and loss of life” (128).  The Patriarchate’s printing press was shut down in the 1960s by Turkish authorities.  The theological school of Halki near Istanbul was forced to shut down in 1971.  “By the early 1990s the Greek community had dwindled to a mere three or four thousand, mostly elderly and poor” (128).

The history of Orthodoxy under Communist rule is also grim.  The beacon of Orthodoxy—Russia—experienced intense persecution during the 20th century.  The basic attitude of Communist authorities during this century was hostile to Christianity (along with any other religious belief).  This is because, as Ware explains the state of affairs, “Soviet Communism was committed by its fundamental principles to an aggressive and militant atheism” (145).  After the Bolsheviks came to power, in Ware’s words, “The Church ceased to possess any rights; quite simply, it was not a legal entity” (146).  For example, the Church was excluded from all participation in the education system. Ware gives a shocking example of an injunction given to teachers during this period:

A Soviet teacher must be guided by the principle of the Party spirit of science; he is obliged not only to be an unbeliever himself, but also to be an active propagandist of godlessness among others, to be the bearer of the ideas of militant proletarian atheism.  Skilfully [sic] and calmly, tactfully and persistently, the Soviet teacher must expose and overcome religious prejudices in the course of his activity in school and out of school, day in and day out. (147)

Article 13 of the “Law on Religious Associations” (enacted in 1929) granted only “freedom of religious belief and of anti-religious propaganda” (146).  “The totalitarian Communist State employed to the full all forms of anti-religious propaganda, while denying the Church any right of reply” (147).  Furthermore, after 1943, bishops and clergy were not allowed to engage in charitable or social work.  Even “sick visiting was severely restricted” (146).  “Not only,” writes Ware, “were churches closed on a massive scale in the 1920s and 1930s, but huge numbers of bishops and clergy, monks, nuns and laity were sent to prison and to concentration camps.  How many were executed or died from ill-treatment we simply cannot calculate” (148, italics added).

Tikhon, the Patriarch of Moscow, anathematized the “the godless rulers of the darkness of our time,” but was thrown into prison by the Communist regime for his outspoken resistance.  “What pressures St. Tikhon underwent in custody we do not know,” but by the time of his release his antagonist tone had become more conciliatory.  He died later under “mysterious circumstances” (151).  Patriarch Sergius—head of the Russian Orthodox Church under the title locum tenens from 1925 to 1943 and Patriarch from 1943 until his death in 1944—would later attempt to segregate political loyalty from ecclesiastical loyalty, arguing that one could be both a Christian and a supporter of the State and demanding a “written promise of complete loyalty to the Soviet government” (152).  The “exiled Synod,” however, labeled this “Sergianism” and condemned it as “capitulation of the Church to the atheist government” (153).  Others, however, supported the policy of Sergius and “felt that he was sincerely seeking to protect the Church” and taking upon himself the “martyrdom of lying” to save the Church from destruction (154).  “Members of the Russian Orthodox Church remain to this day deeply divided in their estimate of Sergius’ conduct” (154).

Over time, political leaders—such as Stalin—eventually realized it was in their best interest to make concessions to the church in order to have the full support of the people for war (155).  In 1943, Stalin summoned Sergius and two other metropolitans into his presence and allowed them to elect a new Patriarch.  After the war, Stalin also permitted a major reconstruction of the Church.  Ware warns the reader, however, not to jump to the conclusion that this was a vindication of Sergius’s policy.  According to Ware, this change in the churches fortunes was “a historical accident – the war” (156).  Furthermore, Stalin’s toleration was limited; the State still combated the church through propaganda, disallowing a response; the State still forbade the Church to do charitable social work or youth work; the State still forbade the “religious” education of children, etc.

Perhaps most importantly, the State expected the church leaders to be loyal to the State and squelch the Orthodox dissidents who openly protested against the State’s intervention with church affairs.  The Open Letter written in 1965 by two Moscow priests from this movement (Fr Nicolas Eshliman and Fr Gleb Yakunin) addressed to Patriarch Alexis “mentioned in detail the repressive measures taken against the Church by the Communist authorities and the lack of resistance, even the apparent co-operation, of the Church authorities,” and urgently called the Patriarch to act (158).  “Sadly, yet perhaps predictably, the Patriarch’s only response was to suspend the two priests from their ministry” (158).  Other dissidents were “sent to labour camps and exile” and the KGB discredited many of them in various ways (159).  “By 1980 most of the leading Orthodox members had been silenced” (159).  The Bolshevik Revolution was the single most important historical event that was a catalyst for the spread of Orthodoxy in the Western world, for it “drove into exile more than a million Russians, including the cultural and intellectual élite of the nation” (173).  A significant portion of the Orthodox faithful are now North America, consisting not only of immigrants, but converts.  The Orthodox Church in America (OCA), according to the more generous estimates, has over one million members.

When the Communist regime fell in 1992 and the Church in Russia began her slow liberation, she faced shocking costs of repairs, a gaping need for the supply of religious literature, lack of training in social work or religious teaching.  They had to “start from nothing” (163).  Furthermore, the Church now faced a pluralistic society—there was now true separation between Church and state.  Athiesm was no longer the State’s “religion,” but neither was Orthodoxy.  Protestant and Catholic missionaries are now free to carry out missionary work in Russia and the Orthodox Church has no power to stop it (163).   “Russian Orthodoxy under Communism was in a paradoxical way still to some extent a ‘State Church’, protected by the authorities as well as persecuted.  Now this is no longer so.” (163). The power of the state can no longer be used to suppress heretical movements of pretenders to Orthodoxy. There has also been a fragmentation of ecclesial structures in Orthodoxy (174).  Perhaps the most crippling impairment, however, to the Orthodox Church in Russia in the post-Communist era, is her tarnished moral authority (163).  “With the opening up of the KGB files in 1992, many of the laity have been scandalized to discover the extent of the collaboration under Communism between certain bishops and the secret police” (164).



  1. Vincent says:

    Good summary.


  2. Vincent says:

    I’ve never read this book so I appreciate your summary of it. Now I don’t have to buy it! 🙂

  3. Vincent,

    LoL! Ware’s book is already a very compact summary, so my summary of his book is really a summary of a summary. It’s the least you could possibly read and get a “basic” understanding or familiarity with Orthodoxy.

    However, this post is just part 1, Vincent. I have yet to touch on Ware’s articulation on Orthodox Tradition and Theology. For the rest of my summary of Ware’s summary, you will have to either stay tuned or listen to my podcasts in the above post.



  4. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    “Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods because of Him,
    since He for us became man. He took upon Himself a low degree that He might give us a higher
    one. He became poor, that through His poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). He took upon
    Himself the form of a servant (Php 2:7) that we might be delivered from slavery (Rom. 8:21).
    He came down that we might rise up. He was tempted that we might learn to overcome. He was
    despised that we might be given honor. He died that He might save us from death. He ascended
    to heaven that we who lie prone in sin may be lifted up to Him.”

    Saint Gregory the Theologian, “On the Holy Psach,” Sermon 2, as quoted in Johanna Manley,
    The Bible and the Holy Fathers, p. 116.

  5. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Please disregard the first comment:

    Here it is corrected:

    You REALLY MUST listen to this podcast. You’ll be surprised and interested I know. Don’t be deterred by the title:

    Fr. Patrick Reardon, priest at All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, takes a critical look at the Western Rite Orthodox Church.
    [audio src="http://audio.ancientfaithradio.com/download.php?podcast=specials&file=/aoc2011/WesternRite.mp3" /]


  6. Thanks Occidental. As you well know, I will most certainly listen to this! Thanks again for the helpful link!

  7. Ok … so the question is: Why does Dr. Moore like this book? What’s in it for him? There are plenty of books written by evangelicals who treat the historical survey of early Christology in a way that defends it. Why does Moore feel the need to use an Orthodoxy book?

    I have a few guesses: 1) He wants to explore Eastern Orthodox theology and expose his students to it so they will not be totally ignorant of the early Church Fathers, 2) He likes the author’s thesis because it shows that Christology was “fixed” in the early church (i.e. so his students will hold fast to Orthodox Christology)? 3) It’s the best way to understand the “orthodox” positions that developed?

    If he wrote the introduction, perhaps all we need to do is read it and he will explain why he likes it. Very, very interesting.

  8. Athina says:

    Thanks for this wonderful review/summary . I am trying to read this book and make a summary to teach my partner about my faith . I don’t have time with my newborn now , so that review was great help .

  9. I’m so glad to hear it’s been a helpful resource: we need to know more about the Othodox faith knowledge in the West is scarce.

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