Eastern Orthodoxy is largely unknown territory to me. Icons, mosaics, standing worship, the liturgy and prayers are not part of my experience. Andrew Louth gives us a clear and beautifully written description of this world rooted in the theological beliefs that give shape to Orthodox practice, which itself shapes Orthodox belief. In Orthodoxy, one believes what one prays.
Louth starts with the sources that inform Orthodox theology which include scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, and the liturgy. This last was illuminating to me in understanding that Orthodoxy is not simply rooted in the Seven Ecumenical councils but also in the Fathers and in the liturgical practice of the church.
Louth then walks us through a “systematic” overview of Orthodox theology, beginning with the doctrine of God, the creation, Christ, sin, death, and repentance, being human, sacraments and icons, time and liturgy and eschatology. His chapter on the Trinity was for me worth the price of admission as an example of both careful and reflective thought about the God to whom we pray. Under the category of creation, his exploration of the idea of sophiology, that creation came about through God’s work via Wisdom, a contested idea, was intriguing in terms of asking the question of what would be the nature of such a creation.
His treatment of Christology helps us understand how the Church as a whole came to understand what it means to affirm Christ as both fully God and fully human. Under sin, death, and repentance, the notion of ancestral, as opposed to original sin stood out as of interest–that instead of being responsible for Adam’s sin and sharing in it, we’ve inherited a sinful nature from the first couple. Regarding being human, he explores the notion of Sobornost, the community shaped around common, Conciliar belief and the notion of theosis, or the divinization that is our destiny, not that we become gods but that we are drawn into the being of God, fully reflecting God’s image.
The next two chapters explore some of the most distinctive aspects of Orthodoxy in its emphasis on the physical via sacrament and icon, and in the liturgy. Under this latter, the focus on how infinite space and timelessness are brought into the time and space practice of the liturgy helped me grasp the sense of mystery and wonder that accompanies Orthodox worship. Then his last chapter explores the last things. Most distinctive here were the discussion of how the eucharist brings the future into the present and his concluding discussion of damnation and the possibility discussed by Orthodox theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware (as well as Rob Bell!) that the greatness of God’s love at least allows the possibility of a final universal salvation of all rational beings.
Reading this gave me a glimpse into the Orthodox world and an appreciation for the deep embrace of Orthodoxy of its adherents. I was reminded how much we share in common because of the shared affirmations of the Seven Councils. I was impressed that Orthodoxy has much to contribute to contemporary discussions of Trinitarian theology and the nature of God. The physicality of Orthodox practice challenges the latent gnosticism of much of Western Christianity. I was also aware of the places where we part ways including the concluding points of the book about universal salvation (which would not be embraced by all Orthodox).
What was most significant for me was simply to listen to this voice from within Eastern Orthodoxy that helped me understand the ethos and pathos of Orthodoxy as well as the logos of its doctrine. Louth, as well as theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware have performed an important work in promoting understanding that might begin to heal this longest-standing divide in Christendom.