The growing awareness of Eastern Orthodoxy among Evangelicals has resulted in a number of books giving an overview of Eastern Orthodoxy. Among them is Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes (2007). Pastor Letham is a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and has taught at several well known Reformed seminaries.
Through Western Eyes has three main sections. The first consists of a detailed historical survey of the doctrinal debates in the early Church. The second deals with specific topics like icons, Scripture and Tradition, Church and sacraments, the Trinity, and salvation. In the third part Letham presents his findings: where Orthodox and Reformed Christians are in agreement, where they misunderstand each other, and where they have genuine differences. For readers unfamiliar with Orthodoxy there is a detailed chronology in the front and a glossary in the back.
Pastor Letham is to be commended for his open minded and charitable treatment of Orthodoxy. One particular strength of the book is his willingness to learn from the Orthodox. This can be seen in his efforts to clear up misunderstandings and his willingness to criticize his fellow Protestants as well the Orthodox. The purpose of this review is not so much to list the strong and weak points of the book as to initiate an engaged discussion between Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition.
Icons. Pastor Letham points out that it is not fair for Reformed Christians to accuse Orthodox Christians of idolatry in their use of icons (p. 279). He attempts to find common ground with Orthodoxy on the issue of icons. He makes the surprising claim: “Reformed theology believes in icons too!” (p. 160). He can say that because for Reformed Christians all of creation is iconic revealing the glory of God.
If icons are windows to draw us to God, opened books to lead us to heaven, so too is the entire order of creation — the beauty of the hills, the colours of the grass, sea and sky, the trees and plants, the changing of the seasons (p. 161).
For the Reformed Christian this understanding leads to a this-worldly appreciation of beauty rather than religious art that focuses on angels and demons. This attitude is most evident in Reformed worship in churches with four bare walls and services centered on the sermon. This bifurcation of the earthly from the heavenly is highly problematic. It introduces an implicit Nestorianism into Reformed worship, i.e., splitting off the earthly from the heavenly instead of the joining of the two. Biblical worship as portrayed in the Old Testament was lavish in its use of precious metal and stones, carvings, tapestry interwoven with images of angels, beautiful vestments, and sweet smelling incense (Exodus 25-30). Orthodoxy’s ornate worship is essentially a continuation of Old Testament worship and an affirmation of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Letham does not tell us why all this was abandoned with the Reformation. It is as if the spiritual can only be expressed by verbal means, and material means are now inappropriate for expressing spiritual truths. As for Pastor Letham’s implying that the focus of Orthodox religious art being other worldly, I would point out that an important part of Orthodox worship is the celebration of God’s salvific acts in human history. Sadly, most Reformed Christians have never done serious reading on the Orthodox understanding of icons. I hope to address this misunderstanding in an article: “Calvin vs. the Icon” that will be posted in the near future.
Pastor Letham does criticize Orthodoxy’s use of icons. He notes that Christ’s visible humanity is depicted in icons but not his divinity; this separation of the two natures is the error of Nestorian Christology (p. 158). In response, I would point out that many icons of Christ have the Greek phrase “ho on” (He Who Is); this points to Christ’s divine nature. In this way icons of Christ present both his divine and his human natures which is good Chalcedonian Christology.
Worship. Pastor Letham compliments Eastern Orthodoxy for its emphasis on the Trinity in its worship and laments the increasing tendency towards a “free-wheeling liturgical anarchy, that bespeaks and foreshadows doctrinal confusion of the highest order” (p. 277). Letham also does a good job of summarizing the Orthodox understanding of the sacraments. He notes: “In the sacraments Christ takes material things and makes them a vehicle for the Spirit.” (p. 209). This is a very Orthodox statement!
Pastor Letham wrote that where preaching has been the driving force of Reformed churches, Orthodoxy gives a central role the visual in Orthodox worship (p. 287). He defends the prominence of preaching on the ground that “God’s own nature is linguistic” (p. 217). He writes:
In the Word read and proclaimed, God addresses us personally. We cannot see him but we can hear him (p. 220).
However, Orthodox worship is not so much visual as Letham claims but incarnational (I John 1:1). It is holistic engaging our whole being in worship. Many people are drawn to Orthodox worship because it engages the whole person. In Christian worship we are called to love God not with our intellect alone but with all our heart, soul, mind, and, strength! (Mark 12:30)
Letham overlooked Paul’s teaching of the Church as the body of Christ (cf. I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4). This teaching means that the Incarnation is more than a historical event in the past but a reality that extends into the present through the Church. People who are looking for God will find God in the mysteries of the Church. That is why Orthodox evangelism often echoes Philip’s words to Nathaniel: Come and see! (John 1:46)
Worship is one area where Reformed and Orthodox Christians can learn from each other. Reformed Christians have a point when they complain about the paucity of preaching in Orthodox churches. I would say that the diminished role of the sermon in the Orthodox Liturgy today points to a decline from Orthodoxy’s rich heritage of biblical preaching. Orthodox priests can learn from their Reformed colleagues about expository preaching while remaining rooted in Orthodoxy’s rich patristic and liturgical traditions.
On the other hand, Reformed pastors can learn from Orthodoxy’s holistic approach to worship. Orthodoxy’s use of incense, vestments, and icons can be traced to the Old Testament pattern of worship. Reformed pastors need to take seriously that claim and examine whether or not the Reformed pattern of worship: four bare walls and a sermon are rooted in the historic Christian faith. Also, Reformed pastors need to reassess the Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper against the early Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.
Sacraments. Pastor Letham objects to Orthodox confusing the Reformed understanding of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper with the Zwinglian symbolic understanding (p. 280). He points out that the Westminster Confession teaches that a real spiritual feeding takes place in the Lord’s Supper. As a former Calvinist who followed Mercersburg Theology I agree. Calvin, like the early Church Fathers, decried any purely symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper and insisted that communion was essential to the Christian life. Most Protestant would be shocked to learn that Calvin’s sacramental theology is much closer to Orthodoxy than it is to modern Evangelicalism (Institutes 4.17.5). However, it should be noted that Calvin’s disavowal of a localized real presence in the Eucharist (see Institutes 4.17.19 and 4.17.39) raises concerns as to whether Reformed Christians really do share the same understanding as the early Church.
Too many Reformed pastors, elders and laymen have been far too narrow in understanding of their own theological history. They are trapped in a late, austere rationalistic Puritanism that Calvin would not recognize. Mercersburg Theology is a good place for these men to deepen their understanding of church history and Calvin’s Institutes. I recommend Keith Mathison’s Given For You (2002) and Jonathan Bonomo’s Incarnation and Sacrament (2010) as two good starting places.
Salvation. Pastor Letham notes that Western Christianity’s understanding of salvation has a strong forensic bias which results in an emphasis on the doctrines of atonement and justification (p. 274). Letham correctly notes that the Orthodox understanding of salvation cannot be equated with the Roman Catholic legalistic understanding of salvation. He does a masterful job of citing patristic texts that teach that our salvation does not result from our works but the grace of God (pp. 250-251). Letham notes that there is a strong similarity in the way the Orthodox saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Westminster Confession understand the assurance of salvation (p. 263).
He compliments Eastern Orthodoxy for its participatory understanding of salvation which is based on the biblical teaching of union in Christ (pp. 274-275). Reformed exegetes need to give fuller attention to the implications of the entire range of biblical teachings on salvation, including the passages on union with Christ, e.g., John 15:5-6, Romans 6:1-8, Ephesians 1:13. Forgiveness of sins leads to a restored relationship with God, man enjoying a union with Christ like that Jesus has with the Father (John 17:21). I would like to add that Letham should have mentioned that John Calvin stressed the “mystical union” in Christ in his Institutes (see 3.2.24; 3.11.8-10; 4.17.10-12). Letham is of the opinion that a broad exegetical approach to Scripture can accommodate both the Western forensic and the Eastern participatory understandings of salvation (p. 263).
Many Reformed Christians stumble when they hear of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Pastor Letham does a good job of pointing out that while there is a forensic component to our salvation, salvation in Christ also entails our adoption and union with God. He writes:
Our destiny as Christians is to share the glory of God. …. Glory is what belongs distinctively and peculiarly to God. We are called to partake of what God is. This is more than mere fellowship. Fellowship entails intimate interaction but no participation in the nature of the one with whom such interaction takes place (p. 257).
He notes that this understanding of union with God does not entail the blurring of the creator- creature distinction (p. 256).
Letham identifies predestination and its premise of monergism as “the major point of difference” between Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity (p. 265). Where Reformed theology is monergistic (man is passive responding to God’s gracious initiative), Orthodoxy is synergistic (both man and God are active in achieving full fellowship) (p. 245). Orthodoxy sees fallen man as still a rational creature in God’s image and likeness with a free will/agency. Yet God’s grace and initiative are both greeter and a priori to man’s response. Thus, grace and good works go together and are in no way opposed to each other. This synergy of actions is taught not only throughout Scripture but comprise the teachings of the Apostles and their successors, the Church Fathers.
Letham takes pain to point out that God does not compel people to come to Christ but that the Holy Spirit makes us willing through the changing of the heart (p. 245). Pastor Letham claims that the Orthodox have misunderstood the Reformed position on predestination (p. 264-267). It is problematic that Letham did not discuss the Confession of Dositheus which is Orthodoxy’s definitive response to Reformed doctrine. Any serious Reformed-Orthodox discussion about predestination need to take this into account.
The differences over salvation between Reformed Christianity and Orthodoxy is largely due to their belonging to different patristic traditions. The Protestant Reformation is rooted in Augustine’s soteriological paradigm which teaches that divine grace precedes human response. While many Eastern Orthodox Christians have voiced their dislike for Augustine, there has yet to be an official condemnation by Orthodox hierarchs of Augustine’s teaching on divine grace. I propose that if Reformed Christians can show their understanding of monergism and predestination to be consistent with the patristic consensus then the possibility of rapprochement with Orthodoxy is possible. However, if the Reformed doctrine of salvation reflect the novel premises of medieval Catholic soteriology then the Reformed doctrines of predestination and monergism must be considered doctrinal innovations.
Scripture and Tradition. Orthodoxy and Protestants have often clashed over the question of the precedence of Scripture and the Church. Letham strikes a balance between two exaggerated positions: the notion that the Bible came into existence apart from the church (held by many Reformed Christians) versus the notion that the Church created the Bible (held by many Orthodox) (p. 189). He notes that the Holy Spirit originated both the Church and Scripture (p. 189). I wholeheartedly agree with him on this.
Pastor Letham notes that for Orthodox Christians Scripture and Tradition comprise one integral whole (p. 177). He does a good job of presenting the Orthodox understanding of Tradition:
Tradition is not merely the aggregate of the dogmas, rites and institutions of the church. It is dynamic and living, unchanging and constant, the revelation of the Holy Spirit in the church (p. 177).
He points out that sola scriptura does not mean the Bible as the exclusive source for theology (pp. 196-197). Letham notes that the Reformed tradition does not eschew the early Church Fathers and councils. The Reformers insisted that their teachings were in harmony with the early Church but they also insisted that Scripture had priority over all other sources. This makes Calvinism much closer to Orthodoxy than Protestant Fundamentalism.
One important area where the two sides differ is the Old Testament. Where Protestantism relies on the Hebrew Masoretic text, Orthodoxy relies on the Greek Septuagint text which contains the so-called apocryphal writings. Letham issues a challenge to Orthodox scholars urging them to answer R. Beckwith’s The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, especially with respect to the Alexandrian (Greek) canon (pp. 182-183). This points to another major difference, the Orthodox understanding of Scripture has never been significantly impacted by the higher critical method as Protestantism. If I have a criticism of Letham, it would be that he relies too much on T.G. Stylianopoulos as representative of the Orthodox response to the higher critical method. I would point out that in Orthodoxy doctrine is not driven by academic research, but by the traditioning process and is grounded in the mystical life of the Orthodox Church.
Pastor Letham notes that where the West has a tendency to view theology as a rational activity, in the East theology is inseparable from piety (p. 191). Because of this, he is concerned that Orthodoxy’s preference for mystical contemplation undermines fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). It should be noted that fides quarens intellectum was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and represents the theological method of medieval scholasticism, not the early Church. Orthodoxy’s theological method is not anti-intellectual but mystical, and grounded in the early Church. It is best summed up in Evagrius of Ponticus‘ (c. 346-399) saying: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”
Trinity. Pastor Letham notes that the strongest agreements between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions can be found with respect to the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology (p. 277). He admires Orthodoxy’s emphasis on God as Trinity and laments that many Protestants have come to regard the doctrine of the Trinity as an “arcane mathematical riddle” (pp. 271-272).
Pastor Letham sees weakness in the way both sides understand the Trinity. He notes that Western Christianity suffers from a tendency towards modalism and the prevalence of unitarian language in Western hymnology. Letham calls into question Orthodoxy’s assertion that God is unknowable in his essence but knowable in his energies. He claims that making this distinction “drives a wedge” between the inner life of God and his saving activity in history, i.e., between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity (pp. 233-234). Letham criticizes the distinction claiming that it leads to a “profound agnosticism” and “defies rational discourse” (p. 237).
Letham traces the differences in the way Orthodox and Reformed understand the Trinity to the Filioque clause. He does a masterful job of surveying the theological issues surrounding the Filioque controversy. To his credit Letham is aware of the ecclesial concerns of Orthodoxy (pp. 127-128), but he does not give the weight these concerns deserve. For Orthodoxy the findings of the Ecumenical Councils constitute authoritative decisions binding upon all Christians. Thus, the papacy’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque clause was an assertion of the Pope’s supreme teaching authority in violation of the conciliarity of the early Church. It is striking that nowhere does Letham declare the insertion of the Filioque clause an invalid action, and nowhere does Letham call for the unamended version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed to be the normative version for Reformed theological texts and confessional statements. It would enhance interactions between Orthodox and Reformed Christians if these steps were taken. Doing so would also help Reformed churches move away from the influence of the Roman papacy and closer to the theological consensus of the early Church.
I highly recommend Through Western Eyes for Reformed Christians who wish to learn about Eastern Orthodoxy. In the past critiques of Orthodoxy by Reformed Christians have been marred by ignorance and prejudice. Letham’s informed and sympathetic critique marks a major advance in the interaction between these two important Christian traditions. Pastor Letham does not engage in cheap ecumenicism. His goal is to facilitate a genuine encounter between two very different religious traditions in a way that will foster deeper understanding and appreciation of each other. His book also makes a contribution to Orthodox-Reformed dialogues with the frank questions that he poses to Orthodox Christians and the charitable spirit with which he discusses Eastern Orthodoxy.
Letham closes Through Western Eyes with a frank admission that while there are areas of agreement between Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition, there are also areas of significant disagreement which means that “lasting agreement” between the two is not likely (p. 289). Pastor Letham calls for mutual dialogue so that both sides can reach a common understanding. My sincere prayer is that OrthodoxBridge will take us beyond a superficial understanding of each other to an informed dialogue in which both sides challenge each other with grace.
Coming Soon: Review of Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura.