Review: The Thrill of Orthodoxy

The Thrill of Orthodoxy, Trevin Wax (Foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Spirited advocacy for orthodox belief as vibrant, broad, crucial in the battle before us, and for the renewal of God’s people.

Many are the voices echoing Bishop John Shelby Spong advocating “Christianity must change or die.” Orthodoxy is portrayed as dead, sterile, narrow, confining, and irrelevant. In an era of politicized Christianity, culture wars and accommodations, and moral scandals that have left many deconstructing their faith, the temptation is to associate dogma with dogmatism–the sooner abandoned the better.

Trevin Wax would contend just the opposite. Writing in the tradition of figures like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, he would advocate that the way forward for both personal and communal renewal in the church is to return to the central creeds of the church, those that have defined the “communion of the saints” across the millenia and around the world. He offers the following picture to articulate his vision of the “thrill” of orthodoxy:

“Orthodoxy is an ancient castle with spacious rooms and vaulted ceilings and mysterious corridors, a vast expanse of practical wisdom handed down from our forefathers and mothers in the faith. Some inhabit the castle but fail to sift through its treasures. Others believe the castle stands in the way of progress and should be torn down. A few believe the castle’s outer shell can remain for aesthetic purposes, so long as the interior is gutted. But in every generation, God raises up those who see the value in the treasure, men and women who maintain a deep and abiding commitment to recognize and accentuate the unique beauty of Christian truth so that future generations can be ushered into its splendor” (p. 9).

Wax defines orthodoxy as “the foundational truths, consistent with the Scriptures, upon which Christians through the ages have demonstrated agreement.”

He follows this introduction with a discussion of the ways we drift from orthodoxy, usually without intent. but rather with the complacent “of course.” Some drift into a place of affirming the faith to accepting a lifeless Christianity, distant from God. Some drift into a pragmatic, “whatever works” where action becomes detached from conviction and degenerates into niceness. Yet others downplay uncomfortable beliefs that they would jettison, and perhaps do. Finally, some become more enamored with the good the church can do rather than the transforming good the gospel can do. For each, the problem is gradual drift and the antidote is the thrill of orthodoxy.

Wax argues the adventure begins with discovering who God is and what God has done. While acknowledging mystery, he contends that it is not all mystery but that God has revealed himself and calls us to the encounter of a person: who do you say that I am? We discover that certain boundaries lead to freedom and that humility rather than arrogance is essential to the understanding of truth.

He contends against those who argue that we shouldn’t fuss with the details that details matter. He proposes, for example, that the belief in original sin leaves no room for any form of moral or class superiority–we are all tainted by sin and all need salvation without exception. Even a single letter matters, such as the difference between homoousios (that the Father and Son are of the same substance) and homoiousios (that the Father and Son are of similar substance). As Karl Barth noted, his theology could be summed up with the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” The volumes of Barth’s theology flow from this simple statement.

One of the most striking chapters for me was that in which Wax contends that far from representing a broadening, heresy represents a narrowing. It ends up pitting one truth against another in attempt to make Christianity simpler. But to do so is always to make it smaller, less inclusive than the both-and of orthodoxy. He goes on to advocate for a humble but confident orthodoxy that neither accommodates itself to the world nor retreats from it but rather is “against the world for the world.” It is against self-help for salvation, against naturalism for a world of wonders, against sin for sanctification, and against wealth for true riches. Do you notice that, in all of these, orthodoxy wages battles against falsehoods for the love of the world and its people? When we lower the eternal stakes connected with orthodoxy, we raise the earthly stakes of other things–whether nationalism, racial purity, social justice as salvation, or whatever.

Orthodoxy beckons us to a quest of moral excellence and radical generosity that is always on the penitential path, becoming ever more aware of how far we have to go, and the grace that has been given us that calls us on. He argues that the beating heart of orthodoxy is not adaptation but application, where we take old truths and apply them to new situations, becoming a church that is always re-forming. He reminds us of the journey of Thomas Oden, who cycled through every new theological fad until challenged to go back to the Church Fathers (by a Jewish rabbi no less!) and found himself in a new place of freedom that spanned time and cultures. Orthodoxy is the eternal song of the church, reminding us both where we have come from and of our eternal destiny as the people of a holy, creating and redeeming God of wonders.

Reading Wax is like a plunge into cold, clear, sparkling waters, awakening us from the dull, the tarnished, the clouded indifference of drifting from orthodoxy. It can be both intensely uncomfortable and utterly invigorating. Wax may make you angry or lead you into the delights of the splendor of God. What he won’t do is leave you nicely indifferent. He challenges our creeping universalism, our pragmatic activism divorced from its theological roots, and our accommodations to our culture’s sexual ethics. Yet I find nothing censorious in his tone but rather, as he puts it, a stance against the world for the world–that is out of deep love for what truly contributes to the flourishing of humans created in the image of God. This book is like the fire alarm that cuts through our dreaming slumbers allowing us to find our way to safety and freedom. It is also like the call of Gandalf to home-loving hobbits to glorious and risky adventures–except that the call to us is not a fiction but to an undying future hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the USand the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety.

Very simply, this is a “Who’s Who” among Orthodox thinkers. In twenty-one chapters, Andrew Louth, professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies and an Orthodox priest, gives us sketches of the lives and theological contributions of twenty-eight significant thinkers within the Orthodox Church.

There are several things that keep this from simply being a disconnected collection of biographies. Foremost, perhaps is Louth’s appraisal of the significance of the Philokalia, a collection of texts published in Greek in 1782, translated first into “church Slavonic” in 1793, later into Russian in 1877, and more recently into English. The Philokalia represent teachings of a number of the early Church Fathers concerning contemplative prayer that provides the groundwork for the “hesychast” (quietness) movement. Louth states:

“It is my contention that the publication of the Philokalia in 1782 can be seen as marking a turning point in Orthodox theology, a move away from the defensiveness of early modern Orthodox theology – the theology of the so-called ‘Symbolic Books’ – to a more confident style of theology, based on the authentic sources of Orthodox theology, namely the Fathers of the Church. This movement of renewal had deep roots and led the Orthodox Churches out of the problems that dogged them at the end of the eighteenth century. It is difficult not to see St Nikodimos as preparing the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire for the independence it was to achieve in the course of the nineteenth century, providing it with what was needed for its spiritual, liturgical and canonical or structural well-being. The path before it was to be long and hard, and there is still much to be done, as we shall see.”

This book begins with the publication of the Philokalia and a discussion of its significance and concludes with a chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware), one of the major translators of the Philokalia into English, and one of the most significant translators of Orthodoxy for Westerners.

The organization of the book is roughly chronological, but also follows a course through several countries as well as topics. Louth begins in Russia with poet and thinker Vladimir Solov’ev. Then he follows two generations of emigrés to Paris following the Revolution, the first including Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdayaev, Florovsky, Myrrha Lot-Borodine and Maria Skobtsova. The second generation included Paul Evdokimov, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Schmemann, the latter two key in the development of modern Orthodoxy in America when they left Paris to take positions at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The trail goes on to Romania, Serbia, Greece and England.

Along the way Louth also explores thinkers significant in Orthodox dogmatic theology (Staniloe and Popovic’) Neo-Palamism (Meyendorff), liturgical theology (Schmemann, Foundoulis, and Vasileios), patristics (Zizioulas and Romanides), the rich tradition of lay theologians (Sherrard, Koutroubis, Yannaras, Ramfos, Behr-Sigel, and Clèment) and the spiritual elders.

One of the things that is striking is the number of women included in the narrative and the other is the number of lay figures who play a major role in Orthodox thought, particularly Philip Sherrard, who in partnership with Metropolitan Kallistos helped translate the Philokalia into English. In many ways, the Revolution, far from destroying Orthodoxy, created a diaspora that resulted both in the missionary spread of Orthodoxy and the theological flourishing of Orthodox thought.

One thing that might have been helpful would have been a glossary of Orthodox terms. Non-Orthodox readers may find themselves at a loss confronting terms like “hesychia” or “Archimandrite” or “Palamite.” Louth does include a helpful bibliography following the chapters of the book including books both by and about the different thinkers. This, and his chapters on each thinker, provides a doorway to further exploring the makers of modern Orthodoxy.

This review summary makes this sound like just so many names, but what Louth does is bring these people to life, with photographs, biographies, and a focus on their distinctive theological contributions, often given to us in their own words. The Orthodox would contend that it is really the rest of us who have split off from them and that they represent a Christianity connected to both conciliar and patristic Christianity. The book acquaints us with how these modern Orthodox thinkers have appropriated these sources, including the collection of writings that make up the Philokalia, to address the spiritual concerns of modern men and women. In recent years, both Protestants and Catholics have been rediscovering these sources as well. Might the Orthodox have something to teach us of the love of God and neighbor, of how God might be encountered afresh in liturgy, in silence, and in life? Louth’s book might help us discover some of those to whom we may listen.