Book Plunge: The Orthodox Way

What do I think of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

My wife has been looking into the Eastern Orthodox Church. While at the church once, I asked the priest if he had any book in the church library he would recommend to help me understand Eastern Orthodoxy. He recommended I get The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware.

So I went and got it. I came home and went through it over the next few days. I have to say in many ways I was….disappointed. I was expecting to find a lot that set apart the Orthodox as unique in comparison to Protestants and Catholics. I really didn’t. I found a whole lot of theology, but it was theology I could say for the most part I agreed with.

Something that I think honestly happens with many people, not all but many, is they move from a Protestantism that is shallow and find an Orthodoxy that is deeper, without realizing that much of the theology is still a theology that is common to all traditions. It is rooted in Scripture and in natural theology. For me, at a book study with men of the Orthodox Church Wednesday night, I found myself talking about how with most people, I will keep my talk simple about God, but when I’m with my theological friends, I will talk about simplicity, impassibility, and the hypostatic union. I don’t think many there knew what I was talking about either. One said so explicitly and no one disagreed. Could it be the problem is more how deep someone is willing to go and this is a problem in all traditions? If we acknowledge it’s the same God in all traditions, no one can really lay claim to a deeper theology.

I had hoped to find more on history and how the Orthodox came to be, but that was lacking. Like I said, most of the theology I found no problem with. Some things I would have phrased differently. Ware does rely on the Fathers a lot more than I would as well.

I would have also liked to have seen more on some of my bigger contentions. I have a problem with the way that I see Mary and the saints treated in most non-Protestant traditions. I’m convinced the best way to honor the saints is not to pray to them, but to learn from their lives and seek to live like them as they live like Christ. I honestly think Mary would be aghast at the way she’s treated today. She would say that she’s just a servant and doesn’t deserve this kind of attention.

I also would like if we talk about the traditions to see the historical basis for them. When did they first show up? On what Scripture are they based? If I refuse to accept hadiths about Muhammad that come from 200 years later and even have names behind them, am I not inconsistent if I treat Christian traditions different?

Yet there were some points I did disagree with. On p. 46, Ware says that we as Christians affirm panentheism. He says God is in all things yet above and beyond all things. I understand what Ware is trying to say, but I would not say panentheism because that’s a different animal where often the world is seen as God’s body and God needs the world in some sense. God is in all things in the sense that He’s the sustaining cause of all things and all things are held together by His power (See passages like Hebrews 1:3 for example.), but He is not dependent on the world in any sense. I realize Ware would likely not disagree with that, but I think his phrasing here is quite bad.

On p. 110 he speaks about the Bible. He says that the Orthodox appreciate all the research and study into the Bible, such as redaction criticism and things of that sort, but we cannot accept it wholesale. Who does? Especially since scholars of all persuasions disagree.

Ware here deals with the idea of just a private reading of the Bible. To an extent, we would all discourage this. Even the Reformers wanted Scriptural interpretation to stay within the rule of faith. Sola Scriptura is often confused with Solo Scriptura. The Reformers did not oppose tradition as tradition. Tradition is not a bad thing, but tradition needs to be checked by Scripture.

An example can be the authorship of the Gospels. Some Catholics I have seen say that the names aren’t on the Gospels so you have to get that from tradition which means Sola Scriptura isn’t true. Let’s grant the premise for the sake of argument that the originals didn’t have names on them, although some scholars have questioned this. The difference is we do have these Gospels and we know someone or some people wrote them. We can freely accept the opinions of the church fathers and compare it with internal evidence for authorship. In other words, we have something that already needs to be explained. We didn’t make up the Gospels out of thin air.

Ware then goes on to say that the final criterion for Biblical interpretation is the mind of the church. Here, we run into a problem. I could just ask “By what criteria is the mind of the church the authority?” After all, Catholics would say you need the magisterium. Both groups claim you need someone or something outside of the Bible like that to help you understand the Bible, but upon what grounds is that someone or something chosen that is not question-begging? Both of them claim apostolic succession after all.

As a Protestant, I respond that the Bible is written in a way that much of it can be readily understood. Some is difficult and requires work, but to say that you can’t interpret it strikes me as incredibly postmodern, as if the words themselves don’t contain meaning that we can understand. Much of what I know about Biblical interpretation did not originate with these groups either, such as ideas about Genesis from John Walton or the honor-shame perspective of the Context Group of scholarship.

This is not to say I have a problem with going to the Fathers to understand the Bible. I don’t. Their words are important, but they are not infallible. For instance, I have at my house A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Recently, I had a discussion with someone asking if abortion was known in the ancient world. I said it was pointing to the Hippocratic Oath. I then decided to see what the church fathers said about sexuality and in the book looked up the section. The church fathers seemed to speak consistently that sex was seen as practically a necessary evil and to be used only for the purpose of procreation.

I find it unlikely that most devout Orthodox and Catholics would agree with this. Even Catholics have Natural Family Planning for families that want to avoid contraception, but want to avoid having children for whatever reason and still enjoy the gift of sex. I have also been told that the Fathers are premillennial as well, yet I am not that at all with an Orthodox Preterist interpretation.

I have no problem with saying that our reading should seek to get us to Christ and this is a danger of historical study at times that one can get to that position of proving something happened without showing why it happened. C.S. Lewis said years ago that some theologians work so hard to show that God exists that it would seem like He has nothing better to do than to exist.

In the end, I was wondering what about this was so much the Orthodox Way. Much of it could have just been called the Christian Way since much of the theology as I said I have no problem with. I have a problem with shallow thinking no matter what the tradition is. I think a lot of people can find a new tradition and think they’ve found something totally new lacking in their original tradition, without pausing to see if such a thing exists in their tradition. I have no problem with things like liturgy and such. I do have a problem when I see doctrines that I can’t find in Scripture and I have no way of verifying a tradition.

My research continues hoping to find more historical. I encourage people in whatever tradition they are in to go deeper. We met with a Catholic priest once on this journey who told my wife she will find what she is seeking if she just goes deeper in Jesus. With that, I think all three traditions of Christianity would agree. All of us need to go deeper in Jesus.

In Christ,
Nick Peters