My copy of the ESV Study Bible arrived this week. It is a confection of modern publishing technology, I must say. The color printing of maps and charts throughout is impressive. The color is crisp, as is all the text, even in the smallest type. The paper is exceedingly thin, yet strong and opaque. There is no bleeding of ink. The binding is perhaps too tightly sewn, but it should loosen up in time and lead to less crinkling in the gutter. I’m not a fan of the super-limp calfskin cover, though. A more substantial lining is in order, I think, but that’s a personal preference. I found only two problems: the top corners of two leaves (one in Isaiah and the other in the concordance) were folded down when the text block was cut. It was a matter of a only few moments to trim them, though. Otherwise, it’s an examplary piece of binding.
Flipping through, I noticed an article on “The Bible in Christianity” (pp 2613-2622) including sections on Roman Catholicism (pp 2613-2615), Eastern Orthodoxy (pp 2615-2617), Liberal Protestantism (pp 2618-2619), Evangelical Protestantism (pp 2620-2622), and Evangelical Protestantism and Global Christianity (pp 2622). Knowing a little something of Eastern Orthodoxy, I decided to read through this section as my first taste of the ESV Study Bible.
Somewhat surprisingly, Eastern Orthodoxy receives a treatment equivalent in length to that of Evangelical Protestantism, which is the section describing the target audience of the ESV Study Bible. These are the lengthiest sections of the article, at two and one quarter pages each.
This Eastern Orthodoxy section of the article was written by Robert Letham of Wales Evangelical School of Theology. It is likely that he was chosen to author this piece as, among other books, Letham is the author of Through Western Eyes–Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Mentor/Christian Focus Publications, 2007), in which he introduces the Eastern Orthodox Church to a Reformed Christian audience. Letham is also a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Thus his perspective is one that can only be considered perfectly amenable to the ESV editors and their target audience, which is that of Reformed Evangelicals.
It is always tricky to write, particularly in summary, about another religious tradition than one’s own. A sympathetic eye is necessary in evaluating such writing, as there are many aspects of any tradition that escape the notice of outsiders, and nuances thereof which are not apprehended. This is not surprisingly the case in this instance. While the majority of the article is very well done, I think in several places, some too severe editing must have shortened some originally more robust passages that formerly made more coherent points. I’ll comment only on those statements in the article which need correction. It is to be understood that I find the rest of the article quite sympathetic and informed. We begin.
First off, I want to mention the peculiar disconnections present between the general article’s title, “The Bible in Christianity,” and the content of its sections. The Eastern Orthodox section, at least, comprises a comparison of Reformed evangelical doctrines with Eastern Orthodox doctrines. It does not treat in great depth, as one might expect for “The Bible in Christianity,” the role of the Bible in Orthodoxy, or in the other noted groups, in my scanning of the other sections. So the entire article might better have been named “Evangelicalism and Other Christians” or something like that.
On page 2616, under the heading “Historical Background of Orthodoxy,” Letham writes, “Constantinople, or Byzantium (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Christian East, was conquered in 1453.” It is perhaps pedantic to point out that the city had not been named Byzantion/Byzantium since its refounding by Emperor St Constantine the Great. While it has become standard to refer to the Christianized Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire, with a special emphasis on the Eastern Empire, this usage is an entirely modern development, championed by Gibbon, who wanted to emphasize, as he saw it, a break between the noble Roman Empire of the classical, pagan period, and the decadent Eastern Christian Empire. Fortunately, these days the Byzantine period has many more admirers, and its important role in the medieval world is now recognized. Even the modern world recognizes the debt owed to Constantinople’s fall and the flood of refugees and their precious manuscripts and knowledge into western Europe, stimulating the Renaissance.
On pages 2616-2617, under the subsection “Evangelical Misunderstandings of Orthodoxy,” we read
For evangelicalism, the Bible is unequivocally the Word of God (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16), while all human councils may err, and therefore the Bible must finally judge the tradition that seeks to expound it. For Orthodoxy, however, the decisions of the early church councils and church fathers often function in practice as equal to the Bible in authority.
This objection or misunderstanding of the role of Eastern Orthodox Tradition is common among Protestants. Tradition encompasses the living faith of the Church, past and present and future. It is the sum of its very life. The Bible, written by members of that Church, the Holy Prophets of the Old Testament Church and the Holy Apostles of the New Testament Church, is an expression in time and space of that Faith. It is absolutely necessary to recognize, however, that the Bible is not unambiguous, and most obviously has been, can be, and will be used to formulate any number of false beliefs and ideologies that are at odds with the Faith of the Prophets and Apostles, the fullness of which Faith is not expressed and guaranteed by a printed book, but by the life lived in the Holy Spirit throughout the Church. The reason for the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers that disambiguate the message of the Bible was precisely to obviate the misuse of the Bible as a free agent to construct soul-destroying heresies; whenever the Bible is placed as a standalone authority, heresy erupts. The authority of the Councils and Fathers lies precisely in their being unambiguous expressions of the universal Faith, clarifying issues that needed clarifying in order to save souls. All the authors, the bishops of the councils and the sainted writers, lived their lives in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in the Body of Christ. These were not merely “human councils” or merely human writings, but inspired. They are most certainly not considered of superior value than the Bible itself, which is the capstone of Tradition, but they are essential to understanding the Bible properly, and to understanding how to live the life of a Christian in this world. There would be no Bible without Tradition, as Tradition is precisely what it is a part of.
In the subsection “Orthodox Misunderstandings of Evangelicalism,” page 2617, we read the following paragraph (emphasis in original):
The Orthodox confuse the Protestant doctrine of predestination with Islamic fatalism. But the Bible teaches both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, since God’s decrees also take into account the free actions of secondary causes. The Orthodox mistakenly believe that the doctrine of predestination is monothelitism (the heresy that Christ had only his divine will but no human will). The idea that predestination short-circuits the human will is misplaced.
This paragraph is, frankly, incoherent. We Orthodox ourselves believe in “both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man;” it is by human will that both sin and repentance occur, and only by the grace of God does that latter mean even anything at all. We understand God knows exactly how everything is going to be, from which step I next trip over, to which deed of mercy I next commit or which sin, to whether I will repent or not of my sins. Our prayers are continually full of petitions to help us to become more perfect like God our Father in heaven. It is certainly the case that we object to an extreme predestination, like the fatalism of Islam, in which man’s will plays no part in his salvation at all. One must, after all, choose to repent and choose to be saved by a merciful God. In the rough seas of life, swimming away from the Divine Hand outstretched to you is arrogant, foolish, and self-destructive. Monothelitism belongs properly to discussions of Christology, not theological anthropology, so its introduction here is distracting and irrelevant. I have no idea what “predestination short-circuits the human will” is intended to mean. I could very well guess, but it rather looks to me as though something has fallen out of the text here.
In the same subsection (page 2617), we are told:
Many Orthodox polemicists accuse evangelicals of ignoring the church’s part in salvation. However, the classic Protestant confessions attest that the church is integral to the process of salvation, the Christian faith beind found in the Bible and taught by the church. Orthodoxy at this point confuses classic Protestantism with the view of later individualistic views.
There are several issues here: the definition of “evangelicals”; the understanding of the Church (ecclesiology proper); and the serious problem of similar language bearing entirely different meanings for the two parties.
The Orthodox accusation that evangelicals ignore the role of the Church in salvation is entirely understandable when, as is the case, “evangelical” is something of a catchall term for an entire spectrum of believers, probably most of which view their relationship with God as a personal contract, transferrable amongst churches in the plethora of denominations comprising Protestantism. This conception of the individual’s role in the Church is entirely different to that of Orthodoxy. The only church outside the Eastern Orthodox communion which has a remotely similar ecclesiology is the Roman Catholic Church. Both share the understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ which is, like Him, both present in a visible, physical manner and in an invisible, spiritual manner, inseparably, with our ecclesiology directly reflecting our Christology. It was necessary soon after the Reformation for its adherents to invent the idea (or rather to butcher the old ecclesiology) that “the church” is a solely spiritual entity, one with no identifiable physical counterpart, in order to decisively distinguish its movements from the Roman church. In Orthodox ecclesiology, intimately tied to Christology and Trinitarian theology, such an understanding is tantamount to Docetism, the heresy of describing Christ as only seeming to have been human. This heresy thus denies Him not only humanity through the Incarnation, but shortsightedly also thereby denies the possibility for the healing, salvation, and sanctification of our very human selves. Our salvation is both physical and spiritual, and is effected through communion. Communion with God is accomplished in the Body of Christ physically as well as spiritually, a reflection of His Incarnation in our own lives in the common life of the Church. So, Letham’s objection shows us a case not of Orthodoxy wrongly objecting through misunderstanding the ecclesiology of “classic Protestantism,” but rather of deeper objections rooted entirely in Orthodox theology and specifically ecclesiology. Letham’s objection here is based in his understanding of “church” which is deficient in the light of Orthodox ecclesiology. The Protestant understanding of “church” is not church at all in Orthodox understanding. I would indeed characterize this as a Significant Misunderstanding, but would posit it of the “evangelical” in this case rather than the Orthodox.
Under the heading of “Substantive Disagreement” we come to some interesting items:
The Eastern Tendency to Downplay the Preaching of God’s Word
The Relationship between Scripture and Tradition
The Palamite Doctrine of the Trinity
The Veneration of Mary and the Saints
First is “The Eastern Tendency to Downplay the Preaching of God’s Word” (p 2617). This, undoubtedly, would be news to the East, were it true. Letham displays a serious misunderstanding here of the role of the Bible in the Divine Liturgy, indeed, a misunderstanding of the Liturgy itself. It is true that in the Orthodox Liturgy, all the senses are engaged in prayer to God, and thus “worship in the East” is more visual than worship in evangelical churches. One must, however, wonder if Letham has actually (and comprehendingly) seen the Divine Liturgy served. For one thing, in the Small Entrance, the Gospel book, which itself is an ikon of Christ Himself, preceded and followed by candle-bearing acolytes, is held aloft by the priest in a solemn procession through the church, and in through the Royal Doors: Christ ascending His Throne. Later, at the reading of the Gospel, the choir sings an alleluia, and all the people stand as the priest proclaims the Gospel from the Royal Doors, an image of the dissemination of the Gospel from Heaven itself, again with an angelic honor guard of candle-bearing acolytes. This is the audible ikon of Christ, His image proclaimed in sound, not color. The actions of the priest and acolytes further glorify the Word, the eternal Logos, and are a lesson of God’s plan in themselves, when properly understood. The Orthodox honor shown to God’s Word can only be recognized as of an entirely higher order than something like, “Let us turn to Matthew 13…Matthew 13…verses ten…through…thirteen” to the rustle of pages, dropped notebooks, and clicking pens. Further, it should be noted that of all churches, the Orthodox Church preserves the lengthiest pericopes in its lectionary. The readings of the the Epistle and Gospel likely comprise a lengthier reading from the New Testament than is common in any Protestant setting, and certainly do in the case of those Protestant churches using lectionaries. The setting of prayers and acclamations surrounding the Orthodox readings likewise outdistance in devotion any average introduction to the typical three-point sermon. That should suffice to make the general point that this is a misunderstanding on Letham’s part, a significant one.
Letham actually begins this subsection with “Largely due to historical events (the depredations of Islam) and despite Orthodoxy’s heritage of superlative preaching (Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen), worship in the East is more visual than worship in evangelical churches” (p. 2617). Firstly, if anything, the “depredations of Islam” had a greater effect on the visual decoration in churches. Muslim aniconism came to require the tearing up of mosaics and so on, and the complete elimination of processions and even bell-ringing. Yet, outside of later restrictions placed on Christian education, Islam had little effect on preaching, initially, and certainly has none now. Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that every Orthodox bishop and priest is not as magnificent a preacher as were our fathers among the Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian, both archbishops of Constantinople. I’m entirely certain, however, that not every evangelical preacher compares well, either. Sermons come according to the ability of those giving them, some magnificent, some not.
Regarding “The Relationship between Scripture and Tradition,” Letham says:
For Orthodoxy, tradition is a living, dynamic movement, the Bible existing within it and not apart from it. Orthodoxy also believes in biblical authority but as part of a larger whole. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority” (p. 2617).
Orthodox believe that God is the ultimate authority. I dealt with this kind of objection to Tradition above. Does the Bible, a book, create anything? Can it inspire without God? Did the Bible start the Church or did the Holy Spirit? Did the Bible create the Prophets and Apostles or did the Prophets and Apostles write the Bible? God works through the Bible, certainly, but in itself, it is not a life-giving force of holiness, but merely a book. And since it is also an easily misunderstood book, it requires the community of those who wrote it to explain what it actually means, particularly in providing the context of the Faith itself of which the Bible is but a partial though perfect expression.
Still within the Substantive Disagreement section, we come to “The Palamite Doctrine of the Trinity.” Here is what Letham has to say about the Palamite distinction between God’s essence (ousia) and energies (energeia):
[T]his view has driven a wedge between God in himself and God as he has revealed himself, threatening our knowledge of God with profound agnosticism, since we have no way of knowing whether God is as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (p. 2617)
This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of Palamite theology. The “wedge” is not something inserted by the theology, it is something that exists in reality, for we cannot possibly know God as God knows Himself. We are not and never will be God. No created being possibly can. The distinction persists. In fact, rather than introducing an agnosticism, St Gregory Palamas was attempting to forestall scholastic agnosticism concerning the possibility of the knowledge of God through his theology. The uncreated energies of God are as much an expression of Him as we are able to comprehend and process, and it is with these expressions of the Godhead, more a part of Him and more immediately sourced in Him than our appearance is to one another, reliant as it is upon absorption and reflection of photons, that we come into union with, through the process of theosis, or divinization, and “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1.4). There is absolutely no doubt in Orthodox theology that the Father is revealed in the Son. We can read, you know: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14.9). The issue is one of maintaining the absolute holiness and otherness of God, which is expounded at length in Bible and Tradition and known through personal experience, while at the same time holding that union with God is indeed possible and desired by Him, as is also expounded at length in Bible and Tradition, and known through personal experience. Rather than understanding Palamite theology as introducing a separation between God and man, it is rather trying to explain how the union of the two actually works.
Now we move on to “The Veneration of Mary and the Saints” (p. 2617). Letham has, earlier in the article, ably explained the distinction between worship and veneration, which will no doubt be illuminating to some. Here, he raises an objection to asking departed saints to intercede with God on our behalf, stating “neither Jesus nor Paul ever suggest that this is possible or acceptable.” What of John, then?
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6.9-10)
These martyred saints are right there in God’s presence. It certainly sounds possible that they are aware of the situation on earth. It is thus certainly “possible.” Of course we ask them for their prayers, and we pray for them, too. That’s a large part of what a life of prayer is: prayer for one another. It is certainly “acceptable” to pray for one another.
More from John:
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. (Revelation 8.3-4)
Notice that “all the saints.” Not just the saints on earth, or just the saints under the altar, but “all the saints.” It is an important distinction.
And then, too, James says, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5.16). Should we care whether they are alive or dead to take advantage of their prayer?
Letham then moves on to a short, somewhat equivocal or half-hearted objection to icons, mentioning “Evangelicals are…emphatic that the second commandment prohibits the use of images in worship, and many think that using icons of Christ as aids to worship oversteps acceptable boundaries in that regard.” Yes, and those people are called Jews. I’m sure all evangelicals likewise keep the seventh day Sabbath holy, as well. Seriously, though, this is a problem with selective, anachronistic proof-texting. And while “[b]oth sides claim the other is heretical,” only Orthodoxy has a mechanism for defining heresy and determining solutions to prevent it (the Ecumenical Council), while evangelicalism has no such thing, rather using “heresy” quite loosely to mean “something we strongly disagree with.” Iconoclasm was officially declared a heresy for all Christians in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.
The last of the substantive disagreements is “Synergism in Salvation” (p. 2617)
The East has a vigorous doctrine of free will and an implacable opposition to the Reformed teaching on predestination and the sovereignty of God’s grace in Christ. In this aspect, Orthodoxy is farther away from the Reformation than is Rome. The difference in respective weighting of grace and the human will is far-reaching. It entails different understandings of the extent of human sin and the nature of Christ’s work.
The “sovereignty of God’s grace in Christ”, otherwise opaque, appears to refer to what one might call imputed justification. That is, Christ’s sinless self-sacrifice as an atonement for sin covers the sins of the petitioner in faith, erasing the sins. This forensic view of salvation is foreign to Orthodoxy, and was actually a quite rare interpretation before the Reformation. In Eastern Orthodoxy, salvation is seen as a continuing process of sharing more and more in the Divine nature, being transformed through communion with God, the divinization or theosis mentioned above. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.48). This perfection doesn’t happen overnight, or with a quick and emotional altar call, but is rather a lifelong committment to one’s transformation, to conversion of self away from the passions. It is a real perfection achieved in a person through God the Holy Spirit, not just imputed to a person as a kind of cosmic moral loophole.
The last section of the article is “Compared with Rome, How Far Away from Protestantism is Orthodoxy?” It is a faintly absurd question, pairing the chaos of Protestantism against Rome and Orthodoxy. We are meant to understand it as the Reformed, Calvinistic, evangelical Protestantism of the author, surely, as a cipher for all Protestantism. Orthodoxy, I can assure you, is quite content to be far away from Protestantism. Particularly when we are treated to such peculiar statements as this, “Western faith is centered in Christ; the East’s is more focused on the Holy Spirit.” Er, sure. That’s just wrong. Pay attention to any Eastern Orthodox church service and you’ll be immediately disabused of such a peculiar idea. Christ is everywhere in our services, and everything to us. We have no other Savior. He is the one who sends God the Holy Spirit to us to effect our conversion. If anything, I would suggest that evangelicals tend to ignore the Holy Spirit, some even, shockingly, to consider Him a kind of impersonal force, or God’s power or something, rather than a person of the Trinity. In such a case, Orthodox mention of the Holy Spirit, a living part of our lives, is likely surprising because they’re not used to mentioning Him outside of discussions of Biblical inspiration.
In the end, I find the article to have been more well-intended than well-informed. But as noted above, it is extremely difficult to fully comprehend another’s religious tradition, much less accurately describe its more complex theology. Particularly in the case of Eastern Orthodoxy, where we have a very rich, and very complicated, but very precise and entirely intertwined theology, it is not surprising that we run into the issues I noted above. Overall, the article is quite good, however, and a really noble attempt at explaining Orthodoxy to an evangelical audience. A little more research, and I think it could’ve been much better, but the article as it is has turned out quite nice.