Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology

51mhKP0nmCLAndrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, October, 2013. 172 pp. Paperback, $20.00

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Andrew Louth is professor emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University, England. Conveniently, he is also a priest of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh (Moscow Patriarchate), serving the parish of Durham. Basically, in Durham, he is like the N. T. Wright of Eastern Orthodoxy (except with a better beard and more exotic wardrobe).

This book “originated as a series of monthly public lectures delivers in the academic year 2011-2012 at the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology (ACEOT) in the Faculty of Theology in the Free University of Amsterdam” where Louth happens to be a visiting professor (and I should note, has a different cover than the one I pictured, but I like this picture better). Because he works smarter and not harder, “the lectures were, from the beginning, intended to be turned into the chapters of a book” (xi). The result still “retains some of the informal tone,” and Louth hopes you will be indulgent (you should).

The opening chapter raises the question of starting point. As Louth had noted at the end of the introduction, “the experience of martyrdom and persecution has been the crucible in which Orthodox Christians have found their faith refined” (xx). Moving  from this, Louth notes that an introduction Eastern Orthodox theology may involve learning dates, facts, and concepts along the way, but “at its heart it is an introduction to a way of life” (3). Appropriately, Louth’s introduction is a “personal” introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy as a way of “thinking and doing, being and praying.”

Chapter 2 then jumps headlong into the question “who is God?” Louth starts with Christ, moves to the Trinity, then to the Spirit, before returning to refine his Trinitarian dogmatics (which naturally includes a discussion of apophatic theology).

Chapter 3 is on the doctrine of creation and the discussion delves into everything from creation ex nihilo, the distinction between God’s essence and energies, sophiology, and angels and demons. It is a wide range of topics, and I found the discussion of sophiology particularly interesting.

Chapter 4 is on Christology. His trajectory starts with the Gospels, and then goes resurrection then cross. He wedges a discussion of the apostolic witness in between, but the bulk of the chapter is a discussion of the early church councils on Christology (which is interesting to get an Eastern Orthodox perspective on).

Chapter 5 is on sin, death, and repentance and presents a non-Augustinian understanding of the root (ancestral sin instead of original sin). Adam and Eve figure prominently, but in Louth’s account, it is not pivotal that they be strictly historical. He notes the controversy about this, but in the Eastern Orthodox account of sin’s transmission, it isn’t necessary to have a historical Adam and Eve. Death is seen as the central plague of human existence rather than sin, and the resurrection triumphs over death chiefly. Also, there is more continuity in Orthodox thought with man’s nature and the animals, so evolution per se doesn’t cause as much cognitive dissonance. Louth neither affirms evolution nor denies Adam as a historical figure, but just points out the Orthodox framework doesn’t consider these points as controversial as an evangelical framework does. Lots of food for thought here, and something I might return to at a later date.

On the heels of this discussion, chapter 6 is on humanity, specifically, humans as created in the image of God. This is a hugely important topic with Eastern Orthodox theology so it is the predominant focal point. The last part of the chapter draws out implications for an Orthodox understanding the church as a community if its individual members are God’s image bearers.

This provides a nice segue for the next two chapters. The first, chapter 7, is on the sacraments as well as the importance of icons. This is one of the longer chapters in the book, yet I was a bit disappointed in all of Louth’s constructive work on icons he doesn’t deal with objections to them, specifically, the how their use in Orthodox worship doesn’t violate the second commandment or diminish the incarnation (the latter being something they hold in very high esteem). I suppose given the nature of his work (being mostly constructive), he didn’t feel obligated to deal with standard evangelical objections. In any event, I understand the whole argument a bit better, though I am still uncomfortable with it (which is why I’m not Eastern Orthodox).

The second, chapter 8, is on liturgy proper. While he does explain the liturgy of the Orthodox service, as well as the liturgical calendar, Louth goes beyond just that and establishes an understanding of time and space in which to make sense of this flow of worship life. Basically he highlights the importance of understanding time as cyclical (though not in denial of its linear nature) and that having a “participatory theology” lends itself to a repeating cycle of church liturgical life.

The final chapter, chapter 9, is as expected, on eschatology. As you might guess, Louth is not a dispensationalist, though pinning him down in an evangelical scheme might be difficult. The discussion of the chapter deals with where the entire world is headed (universal eschatology), where each of us is headed (individual eschatology), and then problems in eschatology (the word “millennium” is not used, but in a pinch, Louth would probably fit a post-mil framework). He briefly discusses purgatory (and denies it), and then ends the chapter pointing out that the hope of universal salvation lingers within Eastern Orthodox, fits much of the theological emphases, and even has major defenders in recent years. And with that, the book is done.

Louth closes out with recommended readings for those who want to dig deeper, and then lists the books he referred to. Though he has been writing in pretty plain and easy to follow English, reading this book was somewhat like visiting a foreign country (I suppose that’s the point). It is at least visiting an entirely different theological culture. We share much in common (especially in Christology and Trinitarian theology), but differ noticeably in other areas (the transmission of sin, the nature of liturgy, the hope for final salvation for all). But just like visiting other cultures broadens your own horizons, familiarizing yourself with a different take on Christian theology broadens your theological horizons.

One thing that stood out to me as I read Louth’s work is how liturgical the whole thing was. By that I mean he quotes from prayers and liturgical readings at length to make many of his points. He is as we might say, “steeped” in the liturgy of his own church. Though an academic, he is clearly also clergy and his pastoral nature comes out in how often he points to common liturgical elements (common to the Orthodox at least) to draw out what he is saying or hammer a point home. In the same way a Reformed theologian might refer to WCF or Heidelberg, Louth refers to the liturgy. It was motivating to me to be able to draw on something similar to that in my own theologizing, but I sadly, do not have anything like that because of where I go to church.

In any event, I found this an interesting and profitable read. It is a good starting point for understanding Orthodox theology and there is plenty of direction at the end for anyone who wants to read further up and further in. If you’re intrigued by Eastern Orthodoxy and would like to learn more from someone who is steeped in its theology and liturgy, this a great book for doing just that.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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