The Orthodox Church (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 31, 2011

The Orthodox Church
By Timothy Ware
4 Stars (out of 5)

Growing up there were only two “forms” of Christianity: Protestants (which, for me, mostly meant Pentecostals and Baptists) and Catholics (which, for me, meant “nominal idol worshipping Christians” who needed to be converted to true Christianity by become Protestant).

It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I discovered a third “mysterious” branch of Christianity: the Orthodox.

I knew so little of this branch of the faith that I began to look for Church History books to find out about them. Sadly so little is explored in the history books I commandeered. They were all decidedly interested in the history of the Western Church that most often the only significant mention of the Orthodox Church was when it came time to discuss the schism when the Eastern church split from the West. (Notice the intentional bias in that sentence. The Orthodox would say it was the West which parted from the historic faith and split.)

Timothy Ware’s book, The Orthodox Church, is broken up into two parts. Part one is a history of the Church from the Eastern Orthodox perspective; part two explores the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox East.

I have three critiques about part one of the The Orthodox Church. Ware is a good writer, but many of the terms, places and people are very foreign to me. This made grasping the historical story-line more difficult. Secondly, a hundred and nintey pages (in a 330 page book) seems not enough to develop a history of the Church. I would have preferred the whole book (all 330 pages) to be focused on the history of the Church from the Orthodox perspective and a second book to explore the beliefs and practices of Orthodoxy (from part 2). Third, more than one third of the history from the Orthodox perspective focuses on the twentieth century which seemed disproportionate to me. I would have preferred more detail in the earlier chapters, and less in the latter.

One of the important features we learn from this book is how the Orthodox Church survived through the past 1300 years under serious suppression and persecution first by the Arabs and next by the Communists right up to recent times. It is this suppression which has kept the Orthodox Church small (by comparison) and foreign to us Westerners.

A few curious things come to light by looking at the Orthodox view of history. First, while we are taught that the Eastern church split from the West which – according to the Catholics – have the “Apostolic Succession”. The Orthodox tell a different story. From their perspective they have the true Apostolic Succession and it was Rome and the West which split.

Secondly, and I found this amazing, the Orthodox Church has historically always recognized the Pope as having the place of primacy in the church. What they call the “primacy of honor” [p.27]. They reject “Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870″ and make it clear: “Note that we have used the word ‘primacy’, not ‘supremacy’”. Of the five historic “Patriarchs” (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople), the “Patriarch of Rome” was seen as being “first among equals”. Rome’s mistake was is trying to claim the Pope as having a place of supremacy.

In the second part of this book I much appreciated a more direct approach to the Orthodox doctrinal beliefs and practices.

Fascinatingly for me is that I have recently come to hold to the view of atonement known as “Christus Victor”. Protestants generally uphold Penal Substitution view. The Orthodox hold to the Christus Victor view as well – which clearly has historic roots. “Where Orthodoxy sees chiefly Christ the Victor, the late medieval and post-medieval west sees chiefly Christ the Victim.”  Ouch, but true.  He comments: “In the west from the 1930s onwards there has been a revival of the Patristic idea of Christus Victor.” [p.229] He is referring to the ground breaking book by a Lutheran scholar, Gustaf Aulan, whose book I read and was convinced by.

Also, because the Orthodox reject the Augustinian view of “Total Depravity” [p.223] (none of the Church Father’s held to this view either), Ware writes: “And Orthodox have never held (as Augustine and many others in the west have done) that unbaptized babies, because tainted with original guilt, are consigned by the just God to the everlasting flames of hell.” [p.224]

He also writes: “The grace of God invites all but compels none” [p.222]. It is clear from reading this book that the Orthodox view Augustinian/Calvinism with great suspicion, and possibly heresy.

The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon human freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and human freedom, Orthodoxy uses the term co-operation or synergy (synergeia); in Paul’s words: ‘We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God’ (1 Corinthians 3:9) [p.221]

The Orthodox often speak of the “deification” of humans. This is strange language to me and would be viewed as great suspicion by most Westerners. But they make a distinction between God’s “essence” and His “energies” and appeal to 2 Peter 1:4 which states that we become partakers of the “divine nature”. In the Orthodox view, we become “created gods” by partaking in God’s divine nature – his energy, not his essence. “The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god’, a god by grace and by status’”. [p.232]

The Orthodox view the Church as being infallible which, to them does not make it’s members “infallible”. “The Body of Christ on earth exists in a state of tension: it is already the Body of Christ, and thus perfect and sinless, and yet, since its members are imperfect and sinful, it must continually become what it is.” [p.244]

One of the darker doctrines of the Orthodox Church – in my view – is it’s belief a) that the Orthodox Church is the One True Church [p.246] and b) There is no salvation outside of the One True Church [p.247]. From a logical standpoint it follows quite naturally that c) all other “Christians” (including myself) who are not a part of the Orthodox Church are therefore not saved. But however logical, the Orthodox refuse to accept this conclusion:

Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not. [p.247]

This comment is made only two pages after Ware states, “Orthodox theology refuses to separate the ‘invisible’ and the ‘visible Church’.” [p.245]. You’ll find that the Orthodox Church are more comfortable with tension and “mysteries” then even Calvinists!

In any case, this is a good book for granting the curious an introduction into the Orthodox history, beliefs and practices. In fact, many Orthodox I connect with would do good to review it (I have discovered that the Orthodox view of hell is not quite what one Orthodox blogger said it was).

Get it. Read it. Learn it. Grow. There is much we Westerners can learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters!

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • http://irishanglican.wordpress Fr. Robert (Anglican)


    Nice review, one has to also remember that Timothy Ware’s book was originally written in 1963 (first ed.), and Ware is an Englishmen. It had a new edition with revisions, 1993, and 1997. But, it is still simply a great book to my mind. As is the overall blessings of so-called Eastern Orthodoxy!

    You might like this link, it shows Ware’s conversion to Orthodoxy.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Hi Fr. Robert,
    I have the latest Edition of Ware’s book which probably accounts for the great space given to the latter part of the twentieth century.

    I’ll read that bio through. Recently I visited my first Orthodox Church and wrote about my experience here.

  • Simon

    I’m interested in your comment on the Orthodox view of hell. My understanding of Ware’s thinking on this issue is that it is humans who ultimately consign themselves to hell. They “imprison” (Ware’s language) themselves and shut themselves off from God’s love, which has now become “all in all” at his appearing. In other words they do not believe in the very concrete eternal firepit beneath the surface of the earth that seems to be the dominant view in the West. Although, if you press a Protestant (particularly a Calvinist) theologian on hell they never actually describe hell in such a literal way – perhaps realising the comic (perhaps tragic is a better word) nature of the carricature they were taught as a child. It is certainly implied though. They (Calvinist theologians) seem to have no trouble with less informed lay people describing hell in very concrete terms – (what temperature will it be down there? and so on).

    But the Orthodox provide a far more loving picture of God in the hell they interpret from the scripture. Dare I say it, historic Orthodoxy seems to have more in agreement with the emergents on hell than with Reformed evangelicals! I’m thinking particularly of Rob Bell and Greg Boyd (why these guys don’t claim the historic Orthodoxy understanding I will never know. It would do much to strengthen their argument and chop down this completely false notion that their views don’t represent the historic faith. Their answer should be: “the East has never subscribed to Protestant understanding of hell”). So perhaps it is the emergents who are truly orthodox after all!!!