Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective By Robert Letham
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.
Very interesting review robert and I look forward now to reading the book. I have to admit I’m a bit shocked at the places where you say Calvinism or the Reformed faith (I guess in its original form) was/is closer to Orthodoxy — than it is to modern fundamentalism, or Roman Catholicism. Makes me also look forward to your review of Keith Mathison’s ‘Sola Scripture’ book. (Excellent spirit too…just the right balance of being able to disagree with grace and without trashing each other.)
Just wanted to say: Pastor Letham on Icons —> divinity IS depicted not just by the words on the icon but the gold halo around christ with the alpha and omega on either side as well. Also in Orthodoxy you cannot depict divinity in some direct fashion on the icon other than thru Christ because the uncreated Creator cannot be captured in a finite way and recorded. Remember what Jesus said in the gospels “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father” :
Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father. That is all we need.”
Jesus answered, “Philip, I have been with you for a long time. So you should know me. The person that has seen me has seen the Father too. So why do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you truly believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The things I have told you don’t come from me. The Father lives in me, and he is doing his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or believe because of the miracles I have done.” (John 14:8-11).
Good stuff Yorgo. I wondered about why the impossibility of “protraying the divine image” was a real problem…because we cannot protray “the divine image” in any picture of a man, or anything in creation…which would not normally argue that image of the divine does not exist just because we can’t visibly portay it? And Christ’s own words in Jn 14 seem to argue or imply the same, no? There is also the issue and distinction between “Worship” and “Veneration” that must be dealt with, also in light of the incarnattion. Thanks for your efforts to help? Perphaps a Reformed theologian will comment and clear up this issue from the Reformed perspective???
I like your blog. I have relatives who are life insurance agents. //About Christ’s words: what I think they imply is that for us here and now on this side of the divide Christ coming in the flesh is enough or as much as we can comprehend as to who the Father is. I think it was St Chrysystom or was it St. Augustine who said you cannot stare into the sun but by it you can see everything else clearly.
You mentioned Reform theologians. As I wrote to Robert (whose site this is) on another post I am Orthodox but with Calvinist-Reform leanings (how’s that for a curve ball). So I’m a curious type of hybrid .
As for icons: Icons of saints are not worshiped nor is the paint and material “holy” but the saint pictured in the Icon may be venerated (ie deeply respected). I personally am moved by the icon of Saint Paul (love that guy) and I know it was God writing through him but I still am grateful for Romans and Galatians (my favorite books). Now worship is only for God and when you pray you do not have to have icons of Christ in front of you. I pray like a baptist myself looking up to heaven hands up and away from icons on my wall HOWEVER if my mind wanders and the devil tries to drop in a though of evil to embarrass me etc I have an icon there say of Paul writing an epistle (a famous icon of Paul at a writing desk), or of Christ at the transfiguration or Abraham serving food to “the three men” in the OT. It puts my mind back on the right path. Also, To me the icons that surround you in a Orthodox church are a constant reminder of Hebrews 12:1. All those people who died in the Lord and did great deeds in his name, they are alive and witnesses. They ran the race as to win and fought the good fight, having been justified by His Grace they did not take their gift of salvation in vain but lived it out in the Spirit. (I think I need to start my own blog!)
ah I see you are a Presbyterian. I am going through the Westminster Confession right now to the delight of my Presbyterian friend, who though believes I am saved is as shocked I don’t leave the Orthodox church to join his. He’s as shocked as Tolkien was when C.S. Lewis didn’t join his church (Roman Catholic) but instead became an Anglican.
PS re icons and “holy” I mean that they are not idols. An idol is a direct divinity or “god”. Icons are holy like a physical copy of the bible is holy in the sense no christian would start ripping pages on it because of what it represents. Or ‘holy’ like the flag is (you cannot burn it but must bury it when its life is over) etc because of what it represents as well. Robert, who I suspect is a better Orthodox than I am might see it differently? You’ll have to ask him!
On pp. 264 & 265 of this book, Letham makes reference to Cyril Lucaris (Letham’s spelling) and Predestination. He observed that “the Reformed doctrine of predestination . . . to be renounced is unrecognisable as the Reformed doctrine! It is a caricature that bears hardly any resemblance.” He then goes on to quote Hapgood’s Orthodox Service Book, p457.
After this quote, he continues: “This question is spurious for at least two main reasons. First, it understands the Reformed doctrine of predestination as arbitrary. This betrays a culpable lack of understanding of what the Reformed churches have taught.”
I find this comment, and its continuing observations a bit strange. Consider this regarding Loukaris:
For his later education he travelled through Europe, studied at Venice, Padua, Wittenberg and Geneva. During his years in Italy, he learned to write Latin with great fluency and became familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas, He also kept up relations with the German Humanists Noeschel and Sylburg. In Geneva, he came under the influence of the reformed faith as represented by John Calvin. During his student days, he developed a great antipathy toward Roman Catholicism.
He was ordained a deacon in 1593, when he was 21 years old and, later, was ordained a priest by Patriarch Meletius Pigas, Patriarch of Alexandria. Pigas sent Cyril to Poland in 1596 to lead the opposition by the Orthodox to the Union of Brest that proposed a union of Kiev with Rome. During this time, he was a professor at the Orthodox academy in Vilnus, now the capital of Lithuania. In 1601, he was elected Patriarch of Alexandria, succeeding Meletius Pigas, a position he filled with dedication for nineteen years. During this time he re-organized the finances of the patriarchate and repaired churches in addition to preaching and maintaining constant correspondence with the Patriarch of Jerusalem and Cyprus.
In 1612, he was locum tenens of the Church of Constantinople for a short time. On November 4, 1620, the Holy Synod of Constantinople with high hopes, elected Cyril Patriarch of Constantinople. Yet his entire career in Constantinople was an unbroken litany of plotting and intrigues – both ecclesiastical and political, and forms a lurid example of the troubled state of the Ecumenical Patriarch under the Ottomans.
There is something deeply tragic about his career in Constantinople, since he was possibly the most brilliant man to have held office as Patriarch in this city since the days of St Photius. Had he lived under happier conditions, freed from political intrigue, his exceptional gifts might have been put to better use. And he would have had less reason to plunge into the developed Calvinism of his day.
On becoming Patriarch of Constantinople, on the religious front, he devoted his full energies to combatting Hapsburg Roman Catholic influence and missionary efforts in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. This basic anti-Roman purpose of Loukaris was noble and laudable, but his Western training and numerous contacts with Calvinist circles led him astray from the faith of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
As part of his search for anti-Roman weapons, he came under the influence of the Protestant diplomats in Constantinople, and thus Reformed theology primarily in the person of the Dutch ambassador Cornelius Haga, who obtained the necessary books for him from the West. The “39 Articles” of the Church of England also strayed into his path, courtesy of one Thomas Roe – one of his close friends, the English Ambassador in Constantinople and the Church of England Chaplain to the Embassy.
Just how Loukaris could, according to Letham, thus misrepresent Calvinist doctrine and ‘betray(s) a culpable lack of understanding’ of Calvinism remains a mystery. I find it hard to accept that these two official sources would deliberately mislead Loukaris on Calvinist belief.
Also, with respect to his belief, and the reaction to it, both East and West is concerned, the following also needs to be considered:
In 1629, he published at Geneva, in Latin, his (in)famous Confessio, which completely reflects the strict Calvinist point of view, but as far as possible accommodated to the language and creeds of the Orthodox Church. His Confession, accepts, pure and simple, the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura, excluded the deuterocanonical books, rejects the real presence in the Eucharist, empties the historic doctrine of the priesthood and holy orders of all meaning, and deplores the veneration of icons and the invocation of saints as forms of idolatry.
The Protestants generally, and especially the Calvinists, were overjoyed, being under the impression that they were about to witness the complete conversion of the Eastern Church to the doctrines of the Reformation in the person of the Ecumenical Patriarch. It is not surprising therefore, that from 1629 to 1633, the Confession was published in two Latin editions, four French translations, an English translation, and two German translations, beginning in 1629. In 1633 it appeared in Greek, also at Geneva.
In the Eastern Church, however, the reaction was very different, and nowhere near positive. His Calvinism was sharply and speedily repudiated by his fellow-Orthodox. With no recantation ever, six local councils condemned it in succession: 1638 in Constantinople (three months after Loukaris’ death), 1640 in Kiev (Ukraine), 1642 in Jassy (Moldavia), 1672 in both Constantinople (again) and Jerusalem, and 1691 in Constantinople (for the third time).
Besides Peter Moghila’s Romanising counter-Confession, Dositheus – Patriarch of Jerusalem also drew up a Confession. Dositheus, inter alia, had been approached by Nointel, the French Roman Catholic ambassador for an opinion on the Confession of Loukaris. The result by Dositheus – presented at the 1672 Council of Jerusalem and thereafter to Nointel, was a detailed and systematic refutation of Loukaris.
His refutation was contained in both his Confession and in the Acts of the Council of Jerusalem which were effectively his work. Yet Dositheus, in view of the reputation of the great Patriarch, thought it expedient to gloss over his heterodoxy in the interests of the Church, putting his ideas on trial, not the person.
Both this Confession and the accompanying Acts of the Council of Jerusalem remain the most important dogmatic text of the Orthodox Church of this period. And the most important critical scientific theological dissection of these aspects of Calvinism ever written. It has never been surpassed or successfully refuted anywhere by anyone. Whilst Latinised in terminology, it is far more fundamentally Orthodox than that of Peter Moghila. In the nineteenth century, the celebrated Philaret of Moscow had the greatest of respect for it.
The chief matters concerning Dositheus involve the question of free will and grace, predestination, the doctrine of the Church, the number and nature of the sacraments, and the veneration of icons. He affirms the real presence in the Eucharist, and defends prayers for the dead and to the Saints. He condemns the Calvinist version of sola scriptura, and is critical of the Calvinist approach to the deuterocanonical books. The pallid and much-pared-back pseudo-sacramentalism of the Calvinism in Loukaris is firmly rejected in favour of the traditional and full-orbed sacramental realism of Holy Orthodoxy, a doctrine of the priesthood and holy orders founded on the sacramental nature of the Church, and the Orthodox explanation of the veneration of the saints and holy icons.
The Council of Jerusalem (that is, of the Jerusalem Patriarchate) in 1672 – held in Bethlehem, is of critical importance in regard to Heresy. The spectrum of theology discussed – especially with respect to only one person, and the language used in rejecting the theology of Loukaris was of the same order and at the same level as all previous nine Ecumenical Councils in their condemnations and anathematizations of Arius, Nestorius the Iconoclasts, and Baarlam the Calabrian, etc. Whilst only a few bishops attended this Council at Bethlehem, within five years, all five Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Moscow had endorsed it, elevating it and hence its authority to at least that of a quasi-Ecumenical Council.
With Loukaris (now dead), this was the equal to the deposition of Nestorius in 431, (perhaps higher, given the spectrum of belief involved – with Nestorius, it was primarily one issue: Christotokos or even better – Theotokos) with Loukaris being the second Patriarch of Constantinople to be convicted of Heresy at this supremely-high level. Through the ideas of Loukaris, John Calvin and hence all Calvinism, thus joined this cavalcade of major Heresies and Heretics.
Since then, eminent historians, theologians, and researchers have attempted to clarify whether Cyril Lucaris was the actual author of the “Confession” attributed by the Calvinists to him. While Cyril denied it verbally a number of times and proclaimed his Orthodox faith in his letters as well by his attitude, he did not disavow the “Confession” in writing. The orthodoxy of Cyril Lucaris himself has continued to be a matter of debate in the Eastern Church.
The place of this Council in Church history cannot be overestimated! There were nine Ecumenical Councils: 325 – Nicea, 381 – Constantinople, 431 – Ephesus, 451 – Chalcedon, 551 – Constantinople, 680-18 – Constantinople, 787 – Nicea, 879-880 – Constantinople, 1341-1351 (in six sessions) – Constantinople.
There were also three quasi-Ecumenical Councils: 314 – Elvira, 343 – Sardica, and 691 – Quinisext in Trullo. In terms of theological importance as regarding Heresy, and across such a wide spectrum of belief and practice – especially with one person, “Jerusalem” in 1672 joined this élite group – and among some Orthodox, should have become the tenth (!) fully-fledged Ecumenical Council [and would have been the tenth had this Council been called by a Byzantine Emperor].
In terms of doctrine and conciliar theology, I find it hard to believe that Letham could, in the space of no more than a page and a half, so cursorily skim over, and thus attempt to dispose of Loukaris. Nowhere in his book does Letham show any awareness of this theological and conciliar history on these issues concerning Loukaris that affect Calvinism.
Perhaps I may be missing something, and someone might like to assist.
I’m glad to hear some positive feedback on this book. I have a Calvinist friend who is not willing to read Orthodox material about itself but is willing to read Reformed material on Orthodoxy. Regardless of this weakness in approach (I would prefer that she read about Orthodoxy as espoused by Orthodox Christians and Reformed material by Reformed) I’m glad to hear that of all the books that she has obtained on Orthodoxy from Protestant sources, this one is as good as it is, even if it is still far from perfect (as has been noted above in the post and subsequent comments).
Thanks for providing this website. My friend may not ever read information from this site, but I will have ample opportunities to discuss these issues in detail and will be better informed because of them.
Hi John! Keep the discussion going with your friend. We need people like you. I will be reviewing other books written by Reformed Christians in the future.
Letham’s book really is a wonderful thing! I have shared it with several Reformed friends. With one friend, it had truly built a bridge of understanding and aided our ongoing conversations. With another, he ended up converting to Orthodoxy. And it wasn’t that Letham converted him, it’s just that he was able to focus on areas of agreement and disagreement with Orthodoxy, and ultimately concluded that the Orthodox positions were correct. Any book that can put the issues into focus is going to be helpful.
Excellent review, and thanks for this amazing site. I intend to share it at every chance I get!
“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.”
I read this book a couple times. This was not his point. His point is, if you deny images of the Trinity, which the Louisville Ortho Church does here, then your only hope of images of Christ is to image his human nature. But that is just the error of Nestorianism. The human nature is not just some arbitrary or accidental content of the Logos. It is the humanity of the Second person. To image Jesus’ humanity is to image a divine person.
Orthodoxy does not deny images of the Trinity: cite the Hospitality of Abraham.
You say, “To image Jesus’ humanity is to image a Divine Person.” (I added the caps).
Have you ever seen the Icon of the Transfiguration? In it it depicts Jesus Transfigured with rays of light, being flanked by Elijah and Moses.
My point is, what exactly do you think those rays of light are Drake? It’s Uncreated Light. And what is Uncreated Light but God?
Why do you think Christ is always depicted wearing Red and Blue ropes? One reason is because Red + Blue = Purple…. the color of royalty. It also depicts His two natures. Because of this, the Icon of the Pantokrator depicts our very salvation, illumination and deification.
An interesting review; I might have to get this book.
Can you recommend a book / lecture on the Trinity from the EO perspective? Christology? The implications of the filioque? I just finished a lecture on these subjects by Carl Trueman that talked about the Eastern church’s tendency to start from the “threeness” of the Trinity versus the West’s “oneness” starting point. He points out that this leads to a “functional unitarianism” in Protestantism. I would agree; the average Protestant churchgoer (in my experience) is at best a modalist.
Any recommendations would be appreciated.
(BTW- I wish there was an option here to receive email notification of replies and comments!)
St. John of Damascus’ On The Orthodox Faith is a summary of the scriptures and the father’s before him. Chapters are not that long and all have headings. Good stuff. Here’s the chapter on the Trinity:
Thank you, Canadian!
This looked like a decent primer:
Bishop Ware’s The Orthodox Church is considered to be a classic and a standard introduction. If you want to read ‘heavy’ theology, I recommend Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church and the late Katherine Mowry LaCugna’s God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. Lossky is solidly Orthodox, LaCugna a liberal Catholic theologian. If you keep in mind their biases, I’m sure you can navigate your way back to the primary sources and the fundamental issues of the Christian understanding of God and the Trinity.
A word of advice, take it slow and easy. It’s like journeying to a foreign land where there is a different culture and a different language. In the meantime get to know others on the Orthodox side and ask us questions. And don’t be afraid to ask Orthodox Christians to slow down when we talk about the Trinity. 🙂
Thanks again, Robert. I think that if nothing else, I would like to explore further the implications and effects of an outworking of Trinitarian Christianity. It sounds like the EO tradition has much to offer towards this.
To be honest, I would be hard pressed to explain how (or even if) the Trinity informs and affects my day-to-day activities. I don’t think I have to have a developed Trinitarian basis for every action I take, but it would be nice for me to have a solid formulation of some sort in my own mind. I also would like to understand the implications and consequences of the filioque. I affirm the filioque, but am not sure that I could effectively demonstrate how that affects my life, faith, or practice.
The addition of the filioque to the Athanasian Creed is significant- it seems to me to make belief in it a condition of salvation. OTOH, does its omission (as originally written) necessarily damn those who hold to it? It seems that it is an either/or proposition:
This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.
At any rate, without a firm grounding in the Trinity, there’s not much to outwardly and effectively separate a Trinitarian Christian from a Unitarian.
I apologize for drawing this comment thread off-topic. Thanks for the recommendations!
Do Orthodox Christians even use the Athanasian Creed? The idea that intellectual belief = faith, and that intellectual belief is what saves sounds more like a Western/Roman Catholic/Calvinist idea to me. Athanasius himself did not write the creed and it didn’t come into existence until several centuries later–long after the Council of Constantinople had already banned the composing of any more creeds (the Apostles’ and the Nicene were seen as sufficient in themselves). If I’m not mistaken, the “Athanasian” Creed never caught on in the East, and probably for good reason.
Not really. A priest once showed us the Athanasian Creed in the catechism class but that’s the only time. It’s never used in the Divine Liturgy. Some scholars think that the Athanasian Creed was originally a sermon.
Good to know Robert, that even yrs later your reviews are still read I appreciate your analysis and reviews.