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Book Review (pt4): The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware: Criticism and Conclusion

The following is part 4 of 4 in my book review of Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church, 3rd edition (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 359 pp.  Here I offer a few critical thoughts of my own and a conclusion.  Click here for the full review in PDF, click here for the 2-part audio podcast version of my book review.  Because the West is so ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy and because Ware’s book is already a compact summary of Orthodoxy, I trust that these book reviews will be a valuable resource for those who are the slightest interested in Orthodox Christianity.

Criticism

One does not need to read between the lines to see that Ware is not writing as a disinterested observer of The Orthodox Church.  His book could be considered an enthusiastic and engaging commendation of Orthodox Christianity to Western Christians.  At various points throughout the book, his overview of Orthodoxy comes across as apologetical in tone.  I will draw out two examples and give a brief critique of them: 1) his insistence that the Orthodox Church is utterly unique from anything Western and 2) his historical representation of Patriarch Photius. 

The Uniqueness of Orthodoxy

Ware wants his readers to see that “Orthodoxy is not just a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope,” but distinct from any Western “religious system” (2).  To Ware, Protestants and Catholics both have more in common with each other than either of them do with Orthodoxy; they are “two sides of the same [Western] coin” (2).  Indeed there appears to be a subtle (but noticeable) pejorative use of the word “Western,” along with the assumption that Western influence spells the degradation of Orthodoxy (see esp. 116-117).

Ware also appears to have been influenced greatly by Alexis Khomiakov (the first “original” Russian theologian) and his insistence that all Western theology “betrays the same fundamental point of view, while Orthodoxy is something entirely distinct” (123, italics added).  Ware introduces his readers to Orthodox theology this way:

Christians in the west, both Roman and Reformed, generally start by asking the same questions, although they may disagree about the answers.  In Orthodoxy, however, it is not merely the answers that are different—the questions themselves are not the same as in the west. (1)

Ware also emphasizes that the Orthodox Church has never undergone a Reformation or Counter-Reformation like the West, but were only affected by this upheaval in an “oblique” way (1).

As we begin to explore Orthodox theology with Ware, however, it quickly becomes clear that Ware’s claims about the absolute uniqueness of Orthodoxy are exaggerated. For example, thinking of Scripture as existing “within Tradition” and not something entirely distinct from Tradition is one of the ways Catholics have responded to the Protestant position of sola scriptura (196-97).  Protestants would likely think of Ware’s argument that “it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority” as a “Catholic” argument, along with his argument that “individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation” (199). Ecumenical Councils are binding to both Catholics and the Orthodox, even if they disagree about what would qualify as an ecumenical council.

Ware assures his readers that Orthodoxy believes the Church should be a Scriptural Church “just as firmly” as Protestants (199).  Although the Orthodox (along with Protestants) think Catholic claims of papal authority have resulted in “too great a centralization” in matters of church government, nevertheless, all Catholics and Orthodox alike share in the assumption that the church is to be governed by an authoritative hierarchy (216).  The Orthodox Church may very well be much more than simply a kind of Catholic Church without a pope, but in many areas of church government they are similar enough to cause some Protestants to strain to see what major differences there would be if the pope were not in the governing equation.

Nor is this all. Orthodoxy in fact shares many assumptions and questions in common with other Christian traditions.  It would appear Ware himself proves by his overview of Orthodox doctrines that much of Orthodox theology is very close (if not the same) as in other Christian traditions.  If we are to take Ware as fairly representing the Orthodox position on grace and free-will, it is clear the Orthodox Church falls in the Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, for even his way of phrasing the issue bears Arminian assumptions and leaves the “synergy” between God and man ultimately dependent upon the human, for “God knocks, but waits for us to open the door” (222).  This is an Arminian notion of synergy that attributes the granting of grace to God and the acceptance of this grace to the human person, whereas Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all wished to attribute even the acceptance of grace to God’s grace itself.  That is, much of Western theology—following Augustine—has thought of the human free-will as the proper object of God’s grace, and thus one of the proper functions of grace is to effectively move the free human will to freely accept salvation.  As Aquinas put it:

The justification of the ungodly is brought about by God moving man to justice.  For He it is that justifieth the ungodly according to Rom. Iv. 5.  Now God moves everything in its own manner, just as we see that in natural things, what is heavy and what is light are moved differently, on account of their diverse natures.  Hence He moves man to justice according to the condition of his human nature.  But it is man’s proper nature to have free-will.  Hence in him who has the use of reason, God’s motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace.[1]

To present the issue as Ware does—that either one believes in synergy or else that God draws people by “force and violence”—demonstrates Ware’s Arminian notion of free-will (222).  This gives the reader the impression that even though the Orthodox Church did not participate actively in the Reformation debates, nevertheless, she not only asks the same sort of questions that the Western traditions have asked, but answers such questions in the same way that many Western theological traditions have answered them. Furthermore, although the Orthodox Church certainly did not participate in the Reformation debates as actively as Protestants and Catholics, they were, however, forced to give their position on many of the fundamental questions that Protestant theologians were raising (see esp. 94-99).

Can we really say that Protestant and Catholic inquiry about papal authority, grace & free-will, the number and nature of the sacraments, the authority of scripture vs. tradition, etc., is fundamentally different than Orthodox inquiry?  Are we not asking the same questions? If Protestants and Catholics are not generally asking the same questions asked (or answered) in Orthodox theological inquiry (as Ware claims), how can such Protestants and Catholics ever hope to find answers to their deep theological inquiries in the Orthodoxy tradition?  Indeed, why have so many Protestants, for example, converted to Orthodoxy because they have found in Orthodox tradition more satisfying answers in their theological quest?  Given the degree of overlap between Western and Eastern theology, Ware’s claim that Orthodoxy does not ask the same questions as other “Western religious systems” and is somehow entirely unique appears to be considerably misleading.

St. Photius The Great

Ware’s picture of Photius is much more flattering than the picture we receive of him in Western historical treatments.  Rather than explain to the reader that the “schism of Nicolas” began because the rightful Patriarch of Constantinople (St. Ignatius) was forced to resign through the use of torture after he refused to give communion to the Emperor’s sexually immoral uncle, Ware chooses his words very carefully:

Soon after his accession [Photius] became involved in a dispute with Pope Nicolas I (858-67).  The previous Patriarch, St Ignatius, had been exiled by the Emperor and while in exile had resigned under pressure.  The supporters of Ignatius, declining to regard this resignation as valid, considered Photius a usurper. When Photius sent a letter to the Pope announcing his accession, Nicolas decided that before recognizing Photius he would look further into the quarrel between the new Patriarch and the Ignatian party. (52-53)

This account does not give consideration to why Pope Nicholas was determined to “investigate” the situation or why Ignatius’s supporters refused to recognize his resignation as valid.  It therefore cleverly obscures what many historiographers consider the occasion for the schism.  No matter how brilliant of a scholar Photius was (and there is no doubt about his scholarly abilities), the details surrounding his ascension as Patriarch of Constantinople are tainted with questionable politics.  Ware, on the other hand, clearly is a great admirer of Photius and delights in painting a flattering picture of him as St. Photius the Great.  He borrows Ostrogorsky’s word of praise that Photius was “the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skilful diplomat ever to hold office as Patriarch of Constantinople” (52).  Perhaps Photius was indeed all these things, but perhaps he was also a very shrewd politician, and perhaps Photius’s to-be-expected Orthodox position on the doctrine of Papal supremacy was not the deepest matter of concern for pope Nicholas.

Conclusion

All in all, Ware’s book is perhaps the most engaging and helpful introduction to Orthodoxy available for the Western world.[2] His enthusiastic tone and apologetical stance, far from making the book less commendable, will actually help the reader better sympathize with his Orthodox perspective. Ware’s occasional explicit criticisms of his own tradition,[3] sensitivity to Western concerns, summaries of why the Filioque could be considered heresy, frequent contrasts between Orthodox positions and Protestant or Catholic positions, all add to the value of his book and give it a delightful pungency.  Although his treatment is terse by design, his last chapter, entitled “Further Readings,” conveniently lists numerous sources in topical order for those who wish to do further study.  While his introduction to Orthodoxy is enlightening and elegant, much of his analysis is now outdated.  One can only hope that soon, following Ware’s example, a more up-to-date treatment of Orthodoxy will replace his now classical introduction.

Bradley R. Cochran

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[1] Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981), I-II.113.3. Furthermore, any movement of the will toward God is “already informed with grace” because it is the result of grace.  ST I-II.111.3.

[2] It is considered “a classical presentation of The Orthodox Church ever since it first appeared in 1963.”  Edward G. Farrugia, “The Orthodox Church,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 62, no. 2 (1996), 536.

[3] He mentions, for example, that due to the traditional alliance between church and state in many Slavic countries, the Slavs “have often confused the two and have made the Church serve the ends of national politics” (77).  Nationalism, in Ware’s book, has been “the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries” (77).

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