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Book Review (pt.3): The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware: Orthodox Theology

The following is part 3 of my book review of Ware’s The Orthodox Church. Here I focus on Orthodox Theology.  Click here for the full review in PDF, or here for the full review in podcast format.

Ware, Timothy.  The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.

The Trinity

As one might expect given the centrality of The Creed in Orthodox life, the foundation of Orthodox theology is the doctrine of the Trinity.  The theological definitions of Nicaea are not simply for high theologians or scholars, but have practical import for every Christian.  “Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity” (208).  To say God is Trinity is to say God is personal, “a perpetual movement of love” (209).  Although it is an Orthodox maxim that “all true theology is mystical,” and although Eastern theology is much more apophatic than Western theology, the definitional creeds demonstrate that the “way of negation” must always be a counterpart to the “way of affirmation,” or cataphatic theology (205, 209).

The Orthodox have developed an essential distinction between two aspects of God in order to preserve and protect the mystery and transcendence of God as well as the immanent experiential dimension of God: the essence-energies distinction.  God’s essence is unknowable, but his energies are ever-present in the created world.  As John of Damascus put it: “That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge” (209).  On the other hand, God exists within creation and is “everywhere present and filling all things,” permeating the universe and “intervening directly in concrete situations” (209).  God’s essence and energies are different dynamics of God himself: two sides of the same being of God.  Therefore, God’s energies “are God himself,” and “we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light” (209).  We are not able to ever experience the fullness of God’s essence, but only participate in his energies.  “No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it” (209).  However, in the incarnation, God has surpassed merely being present in the form of his energies; he has come to the human race as a person.  “A closer union than this between God and His creation there could not be” (210).

Ware does a good job explaining why the Orthodox think the Filioque is heretical or at least dangerous.  It undermines the monarchy of the Father, and therefore the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity.  According to early Christian doctrine, the Father is the monarch of the Trinity—he is the only person in the Trinity whose origin is “solely in Himself and not in any other person” (211).  The Orthodox uphold the monarchy of the Father as essential to Trinitarian doctrine.  This is what makes him “Father.”  The Son and the Spirit have their eternal being from the Father.  The Son is eternally begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father.  The “Double-Procession” doctrine of the West obscures this truth, for it has the Holy Spirit proceeding also from the Son.  Yet this tension is apparently reconcilable if one conceives of this procession in this way: “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son,” for then the Father is still the source (or as the East might say, then the Father is still the Father).  Even then, however, the Father must be understood to be the eternal source of the Holy Spirit, and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son must be seen as a temporal mission.  Undermining the distinctions of persons in the Trinity and what makes each person unique leads inevitably to de-personalizing the doctrine of the Trinity and falling into ditheism or semi-Sabellianism (213).

The Orthodox “hawks” follow the polemical spirit of Photius and consider the Filioque heresy, whereas the Orthodox “doves” advocate “a more lenient approach to the question” that focuses more on how the language of the Filioque is understood than on the phrase itself.  For the latter group, the Filioque is still “potentially misleading” and a “confused phrase” (213).  Ware suggests that the West has a tendency to overemphasize the unity of the Trinity and points to Aquinas as the example of how Western conceptions of the Trinity tend to depersonalize the Trinity.  According to Ware, Aquinas “went so far as to identify the persons with the relations: personae sunt ipsae relations,” which appears to turn God “into an abstract idea” (215).   The “hawks” think that the Filioque has caused the West to subordinate the Spirit to the Son—“if not in theory, then at any rate in practice” (215).

Anthropology

That we are made in the image and likeness of God must be understood primarily in terms of the Trinity.  In the Greek Fathers “image” and “likeness” are not mere synonyms.  Image refers to man as an icon of God: man’s free will, reason, and sense of moral responsibility.  “Likeness” on the other hand, refers to moral likeness and “depends” on each individuals moral choice and human effort (219).  To become more and more like God is to become more and more deified or “assimilated to God through virtue” (219).  The deified person has become a “second god” or “a god by grace” (219).  As the Scripture says: “You are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82:6).  Disease and death are a result of human sin.  The human will is weakened and enfeebled by what Greeks call “desire” (Western theologians call this “concupiscence”), but humanity is not thereby entirely “deprived” of God’s grace.  Rather, after the fall grace works on the human from “outside” rather than from the “inside” (223).  The Orthodox disagree with Augustine’s belief that after the fall humans loose their “freedom” and sin by a necessity due to a “sin nature” (223).  To Orthodox, this would seem to contradict human free-will and deny humanity of the “image” of God.  Furthermore, babies do not inherit the “guilt” of Adam, only his mortality and corruption.  Guilt is not inherited, but humans are guilty inasmuch as they imitate Adam (224).

The Incarnation

Whereas the West tends to view the incarnation as necessary only because of The Fall, Orthodoxy believes that the incarnation is the logical outworking of God’s philanthropia: his loving desire to be united with humanity.  God would still have become incarnate even if there was no fall of the human race into sin.  Ware also wants to cast doubt on the common “assertion that the East concentrates on the Risen Christ, the West on Christ crucified” (227).  Ware believes that “representations of the Crucifixion are no less prominent in Orthodox than in non-Orthodox churches,” but the Orthodox do not separate the glory of Christ from his crucifixion and tend to hold in contrast “His outward humiliation and His inward glory” (226-27).  Even the crucified Christ is “Christ the Victor” (228).  “The western worshipper, when he meditates upon the Cross, is encouraged all to often to feel an emotional sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than to adore the victorious and triumphant king” (228).

The Holy Spirit

Whereas Western theology tends to have an inexcusably underdeveloped doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Eastern theology “lays great stress upon the work of the Holy Spirit” (230).  In a sense, the Eastern theologians consider the sending of the Holy Spirit as the ultimate aim of the incarnation, and the entire Christian life is “nothing else than the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (230).  This acquisition is a human participation in God; it is deification; it is theosis; it is salvation; it is redemption.  Christians are called to “participate in the divine nature” according to 2 Peter 1:4.  “The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status” (232).  Practically speaking, this takes place to the degree that the human will is conformed to the philanthropic will of God; it takes place to the degree that the human will loves God and others (232).  Our “full deification,” however, will take place at the Resurrection when our bodies too will become “deified” as the glorified body of Christ (233).  The two-dimensional icons of glorified saints in the Orthodox Church depict this final glorification, and remind Orthodox Christians of the redemption of all creation (234).  The Orthodox belief in cosmic redemption is what fuels their “increasing concern about the pollution of the environment” (235).  The maxim of St. Silouan of Mount Athos sums this concern up this way: “The heart that has learnt to love has pity for all creation” (235).

Ware suggests six points of clarification necessary for not misunderstanding the doctrine of deification.

1. Deification is not for certain Christians, but all Christians.

2. Deification presupposes a continual repentance (and therefore the presence of sin)

3. The methods for deification are not eccentric:

a. Go to church

b. Receive the sacraments regularly

c. Pray to God in “spirit and truth”

d. Read the Gospels

e. Follow the commandments

4. Deification is a “social process” for it involves loving one’s neighbor.

5. Love for God and neighbor must “issue in action.”

6. Deification presupposes the life of the church.

The Church

There are many similarities between Orthodox ecclesiology and Catholic ecclesiology.  Orthodoxy insists on hierarchical structure, Apostolic succession, the episcopate, the priesthood, prayer to the saints and intercession for “the departed” (239).  However, whereas the Catholic church believes in papal infallibility, the Orthodox “stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole” (239).  Ware also adds that “to the Orthodox it often seems like Rome envisages the Church too much in terms of earthly power and organization” (239).  Orthodox ecclesiology, while having “many strict and minute rules, as anyone who reads the Canons can quickly discover,” nevertheless is more mystical and thinks of the church more in terms of its relationship to God (240).

Ware summarizes the Orthodox doctrine of the church in three major points.  The Church is 1) the Image of the Holy Trinity, 2) the Body of Christ, and 3) a continued Pentecost (240).

1) That the church is an “image” of the Trinity means at least two things.  First, this is because the church consists of many persons united in one, yet each retaining their own unique personhood.  Second, this also means that just as in the Trinity all three persons are equal, “so in the Church no one bishop can claim to wield an absolute power over all the rest; yet, just as in the Trinity the Father enjoys pre-eminence as source and fountainhead of the deity, so within the Church the Pope is ‘first among equals’” (241).

2) That the church is “the body of Christ,” means “the church is the extension of the Incarnation, the place where the incarnation perpetuates itself” (241).  The Church is the “organ” of Christ’s redeeming work, prophetic utterance, priestly ministry, and kingly power (241).  Christ has promised his “perpetual presence” in the Church.  In Orthodox ecclesiology, this is especially the case in the sacraments.  The Church exists “in its fullness” wherever the Eucharist is celebrated (242).  “The Church must be thought of primarily in sacramental terms,” that is, “it’s outward organization, however important, is secondary to its sacramental life” (242).

3) The Church is a continual Pentecost because the Spirit continues to give himself to the Church.  Irenaeus wrote “where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the Church” (242).  The gift of the Spirit is given to the church, but also “appropriated by each in her or his own way,” making the gift of the Holy Spirit very personal (242).  The Church is therefore a place of diversity and variety, yet a precisely because it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, it is also unified.  The Church is the true Holy University (my words, not Ware’s)—united by the Holy Spirit, yet diversely gifted by the Holy Spirit.

This Church is also both invisible and visible, divine and human.  It is invisible because it includes all the saints of history and the angels.  It is visible because it consists of specific congregations worshipping on earth.  It is human and its members are sinners; yet it is divine for it is the Body of Christ (243).  While the West has grown accustomed to distinguishing between the visible and invisible church, the Orthodox does not separate these two, “for the two make up a single and continuous reality” (243).  The visible church and the invisible church are the very same church.  Finally, in Orthodox theology, one can say that individual members of the Church are sinners, but one cannot therefore say that The Church sins, for it is the sinless Body of Christ.

Human sin cannot affect the essential nature of the Church.  We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven, and cannot sin.  … St. Ephraim of Syria rightly spoke … ‘The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this ‘something different’ is the Body of Christ.’ (244).

The Orthodox believe that the unity of the Church “follows of necessity from the unity of God” (245).  “There is only one Christ, and so there can be only one Body of Christ.  Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible” because, as we have seen, for the Orthodox the visible and invisible church are the same church.  The “undivided church” is not something that existed only at the early stages of Christianity and something we hope to attain in the future.  It is a present reality in the here and now.  On earth, it exists in a “visible community” (245).  Therefore, the Orthodox Church admits of no schism within the church, only schisms from the Church.

For Catholicism, the Pope is the “unifying principle” of the Church, but for Orthodoxy, the unifying principle is sacramental communion (246).  “The act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the Church” (246).  In case the reader has not figured it out by this point, Ware explicitly spells out the implication of this aspect of Orthodox ecclesiology: “Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church” (246).  The Orthodox Church, according to Orthodox ecclesiology, is not just the “real” Church or the “right” church—it’s the only Church.  Ware speaks with a tone of disapproval for Orthodox theologians who “sometimes speak as if they accepted the ‘Branch Theory’” that allows for different branches of the Church (e.g. Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).  Therefore, it is visibly one and there are no divisions within the Church.  Ware’s comment that this will probably seem a bit “arrogant” is a humorous and delicate understatement.

Nor is this all.  “Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus).  For Orthodoxy this statement is redundant; a tautology.  Ware explains: “Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (247).  Does this mean Catholics and Protestants are outside salvation?  Ware answers this question as if the answer were obvious, but he gives a surprising answer: “Of course not” (247).  This takes some careful explaining:

As Augustine wisely remarked, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!”  While there is no division between a “visible” and an “indivisible Church,” yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone.  If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.

But Ware’s attempt to explain his surprising answer does not resolve the obvious tension.  If the Orthodox Church is the only church, and the unity of the Church is visible, then the question of how one can be considered a member of the Orthodox Church who does not belong to this visible Church (i.e. those who do not have sacramental communion in an Orthodox Church) is indeed a grand mystery.  Furthermore, whoever the Orthodox think these secret members of the Church are, they must certainly not be Catholics or Protestants, for the Orthodox believe that if they alone convened a general council (excluding Catholics and Protestants), it would be a true Ecumenical Council with the same authority of the first seven Councils.

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3 Comments

  1. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    Good review again.

    Regarding the Trinity (or should I say Theology itself): Reformed theologian Robert Letham recently investigated the Eastern tradition (Through Western Eyes), which he was led to do after his extensive reading of the Greek Fathers for his previous book on the Trinity. He came to some interesting conclusions in his study. Regarding Theology proper Letham concluded, “It is undeniable that there are crippling weaknesses in the Western doctrine of God.” He suggests that the Western approach to first investigate the existence, nature, and attributes of God has reduced Trinitarian doctrine to virtual irrelevance in the daily life of the Western church. The East, on the other hand, has upheld the integrity of the three Persons leading to a fully personal doctrine of God. He further notes that “Colin Gunton has argued forcibly that the Augustinian model has bred atheism and agnosticism. Indeed, most Western Christians are practical modalists.”

  2. Occidental gazing Oriental says:

    BC,

    Thought you’d like this podcast from Fr. Thomas Hopko regarding the historic and ongoing misunderstanding of the “hierarchy” of the Bishop (and clergy), especially argued from the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. Takes Hopko a while to get going on this podcast so the meat comes toward the end.

    “In his continuing series on Bishops, Fr. Tom takes up where he left off in the last episode by concentrating on the influence of the writings attributed to but not actually from Dionysius the Areopagite.”

    [audio src="http://audio.ancientfaith.com/hopko/stt_2011-05-24.mp3" /]

    http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko

  3. Listened to it today as I was painting in the garage. I’ve never heard this before or knew there was a debate over how to interpret Dionysius. I run across sayings of Dionysius in Aquinas. Aquinas apparently quotes some of the Eastern theologians more than he quoted Augustine (a statistic I found hard to believe at first). Interesting podcast!

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