Book Plunge: Eastern Orthodox Christianity – A Western Perspective

What do I think of Daniel Clendenin’s book published by Baker Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’d like to thank Dr. Clendenin for sending me the two books he has on this topic. I hope before too long to get to the second one. This one is the perspective and the other is the reader.

Clendenin states his case first by explaining Eastern Orthodoxy. He does this from the perspective of a Western Protestant who had to do some long-term work in Russia. Here in America, normally, most Christians are Protestants. In Russia, the situation appears to be that most are Orthodox.

The first chapter is actually a defense of Orthodoxy. This is most likely written to help explain people like Franky Schaeffer and Peter Gillquist. For those concerned by those names together, Clendenin does not put them on the same level. In the last chapter, for instance, he says we need to listen more to the Timothy Wares and Thomas Odens than to the Frank Schaeffers.

Many of us from the Protestant perspective put Orthodox on the same level as Catholics. The paradox is that they often do the same with us. I believe Clendenin is wanting us to see that we’re all Christians.

There are some problematic statements. We can include the idea on p. 30 that Orthodoxy makes the strongest claim to unbroken apostolic succession and that the idea of salvation outside of its church is a questionable assumption. It’s only natural that many outside the church will look with suspicion on a claim like this, especially since Orthodoxy is really a minority position in the world and if Clendenin is right, is dwindling.

Clendenin then goes into the doctrine of God. In the West, we often have our theology laid out in a systematic way. Not so in the East where it looks like personal experience is much more relevant and that God is known in mystery. The main idea is actually that we know more what God is not. There is some of this in the West, but the idea is quite different to our ears.

The section on icons is quite interesting. There’s a brief look at the debate on icons. I was surprised to hear that for the first 300 years or so, icons weren’t supported in the church. Naturally, one cannot read all through the church fathers immediately and see, but I did get out my¬†Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs and look up icons, which pointed me to art and images. Looking up images, I found that that does seem to be the case.

Still, I think those in support of icons had the best arguments Biblically. I just think that going with history and tradition, the iconoclasts had the better argument. Naturally, I go with Scripture the most. That being said, I understand the concerns about the possibility of idolatry. It is a danger those in Eastern traditions need to be concerned about. I have been in services that were arranged to celebrate the coming of an icon and it does concern me to see that happening.

There’s also an interesting juxtaposition. When the iconoclasts were in charge, they tried to destroy icons. When the other side was, they tried to destroy the writings of the iconoclasts. If only we could go back and tell Christians to not destroy their material or even the material of their pagan opponents. We could learn so much that way.

Next comes Scripture and tradition, which is always a touchy issue. Clendenin argues that it’s not an either/or. It’s more which conception of tradition do we go with. A Protestant like myself wants to know how a tradition can be shown to A) come from the apostles and B) be shown to be true. We don’t reject all of them. I think there’s good basis for thinking Mark is the testimony of Peter. That’s not on the same level as, say, the nature of the Eucharist. One is a historical claim. One is a metaphysical claim.

At the same time, we in the West need to be mindful of tradition. The Reformers would agree with this saying that all must be interpreted according to the rule of faith and they were quite eager to go to the Patristics. We can’t consider the church fathers infallible, especially since they disagreed on some issues, but we don’t need to disregard them entirely.

There’s a section on theosis, but I think I’d really like to get to the part on the hermeneutic of love. In this, Clendenin wants to look at how we can all get along. Still, he has some critiques of the system as a whole.

Protestants need to be open to the idea as many of us still use artwork. When I used to get pastoral counseling at a church, sometimes I would get there early and I would go to a room for private prayer. Honestly, artwork rarely moves me. I’m just not that type of person, but there was a stained glass portrait of Jesus with a shepherd’s staff knocking gently on a door. I always liked that painting.

Yet on the other side, Orthodoxy has a hurdle to say that icons are mandatory. The use of icons enjoyed less than universal acceptance in the early church. Does it really help the cause of unity to have statements about those who reject icons being heretics?

It’s also worth pointing out that when God gave us a communication of Himself for future generations, it was in a book. The Old Testament has them and the New Testament as well. It was not in icons. While icons can help us think about events in the Gospels, they can’t fully pass on the Gospel message.

When it comes to Scripture and tradition, it is pointed out that Scripture was canonized and not a tradition. Tradition is good to have, but some traditions could detract from Scripture. A tradition being old does not equal true nor does a tradition having wide support from the Patristics equal that.

Clendenin points out the church fathers were not monolithic and Orthodoxy could benefit from a critical eye looking at them and weighing them out. On the other hand, if the Orthodox depend too heavily on the fathers, Protestants depend too little. We could bear to go back and see the history of the doctrines we believe.

Where do we go from here? Clendenin does present some concerns. When there is a call for dialogue between Orthodox and Protestants, it has been the Protestants mainly who have been initiating. Protestants tend to get an idea that they are less than welcome at the table as it were.

He also quotes Weber who says “Successionists must be highly selective and ignore all evidence to the contrary. They must also maintain an idealized and naive view of the past. In the end, successionism is based on one’s theology or ideology, not on any critical historical analysis.” Clendenin follows with, “I believe that Orthodoxy’s historical claim to unbroken apostolic succession is just that; it is a theological claim that is, ironically, uncritically unhistorical.”

He also argues that when you look at worship talked about in the New Testament, it’s often descriptive and not prescriptive. How many of us have services like in 1 Corinthians where one person stands up to speak and then another stands up to speak? The Lord’s Supper I think was done extremely differently. One would think if the main issue was over the meaning of the words Jesus said, Paul would clarify that. Instead, Paul asks us to examine ourselves. I don’t think it’s so much getting a theology right as making sure our hearts are right.

The liturgy is no doubt moving and beautiful to some, but to others, it is not. Some will be helped on the path of discipleship. Some will not. Clendenin gives two examples. Ed Rommen was a Protestant turned Orthodox because of the beauty of the liturgy. James Stamoolis was an Orthodox who became an evangelical Protestant because the liturgy was deeply unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s not a question of one being right and one being wrong, although that could be there, but a point more of different styles of worship connecting with different people. My wife is drawn in more by aesthetics and music, for example. I am more drawn in by ideas. To each their own.

Clendenin’s book is a great work. I think many Orthodox could read it and not have a problem with it and hopefully at the end with the criticisms and concerns say, “Thanks. We’ll keep that in mind.” It would be good also to see more Orthodox willing to study Protestantism and why we believe what we believe.

In Christ,
Nick Peters