Friday, June 17, 2016

The Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church
© 1963, 1993 Kallistos (Timothy) Ware
368 pages

Who are the Orthodox? To the extent Americans have heard of them, it is through eastern European immigrant communities. Those who paid marginal attention in western civ might remember something called the Great Schism, in which the western and eastern halves of Christendom declared one another excommunicate. While the Catholic west and Orthodox east have continued to drift their separate ways throughout the centuries, they share the same core tradition. In The Orthodox Church, Kalistos Ware delivers a history of the eastern Orthodox, followed by an introduction to its liturgy and devotional practices. He ends by musing on the possibilities and obstacles to communion between the Orthodox and their closest brethren, the Catholics and Anglicans. Although the history is very much dated now, the book having been written shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and the suppressed church started to reemerge, Ware’s account of the centuries prior is handled attractively and efficiently.

Although Rome initially persecuted the Christian church, by the third century had attracted the attention of the emperor Constantine, who declared it legal.Constantine courted the church himself, though (famously) he would not submit to baptism until he lay on his deathbed. Christianity soon became the state religion of the Roman empire, circling the Med, but as Rome aged and withered, division ensued. Barbarian activity in the Balkans and the eruption of Islam made communication increasingly difficult, and soon a purely administrative division between the empire’s western and eastern halves became a cultural one. The western empire and its church became more enmeshed with the fate of the Franks, crowning their king as Emperor,  Frankish influence would extend to theology, as an addition to the Nicene Creed intended as a rebuttal to a local heresy found favor in the west, eventually being adopted by the pope.

That proved to be a problem, as did the pope's authority in general, for his claimed jurisdiction over not merely the Roman see, but the whole of Christendom.  The Nicene Creed was adopted by an ecumenical council at Nicea, representing the entire church; it was pounded out in collaborative labor.  One bishop by himself couldn't alter it simply at will. Ware is remarkably fair-minded about the popes, attributing their beliefs not to villainy or ambition, but to the mere fact that Rome had no western peer.  The pope was the closest thing the west had to a unitive authority, as Charlemagne left behind a mess of warring states.  Secondly, the See of Rome was the only western church with Apostolic credentials, the only one believed to be founded by one of the original followers of Christ. In the east, there were three -- Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – and none were able to claim precedence over the other. The great schism  was thus made possible by the actual divide between the western and eastern parts of the Empire, begun in earnest by the  arguments over how far papal authority extended, and completed when the western Franks sacked Constantinople on the way to yet another crusade.  No forgiveness for this fratricide would follow.

Subsequent chapters cover the conquest of Eastern Rome by the Arabs and later the Turks. The Orthodox church muddled through, largely – it wasn’t until the rise of ISIS that Christians were wholly driven out of places like Iraq and Syria. The most grievous persecutions had a nationalist rather than religious focus – the Armenian genocide, for instance, followed Turkey’s defeat in the Great War.  Following the withering and defeat of Constantinople, Orthodoxy developed new life in eastern Europe, especially in Russia, which wanted to claim itself as the Third Rome. The Russian church would endure its own repression during the Communist years, aside from a brief detente during World War 2.   Turkish  and Russian brutality both drove Orthodox emigrants out of Europe and into the United States, where today it flourishes.

The second half of the book covers Orthodox theology and praxis, both of which more difficult to summarize than politics.   It bears comment on, though, and the Nicene creed is again an example. While the Orthodox objected to the pope single-handedly changing a creed that was created by a congress of the church,  Ware argues that the change itself  also subtly shifted and confused theology.  The change in question was to declare that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son,  which dilutes the role of the Father and makes things more vague. In the essential approach to worship (communal prayer, reading of scriptures, and the Eucharist) the Orthodox and Catholics are very similar,  but there are notable differences. The Orthodox, for instance, worship standing, and most do not employ musical instruments. Icons play a much larger role, being seen as literal windows into heaven ,and used to focus the mind. Mysticism has played a larger role in Orthodox development, as well, though Ware doesn't comment on the tension between it and western scholasticism.

Covering as it does two thousand years  of history and most of Eurasia, The Orthodox Church is impressively ambitious, yet fairly concise. The church's fate under Turkish and Soviet domination are dispatched in single chapters, as is the church's role in the developing civilization of Russia.  It is most helpful in the area of general religious literacy, with a lot of content wrapped up in these 300-odd pages.


  1. This is a really interesting post! I love to search history and see how churches or doctrines developed. Right now I am studying the history of Icons and how they originated and rose in relevance in the Orthodox church.

  2. The examples of them I've seen personally have been beautiful. What horror the iconoclasts did!

  3. Yes, that was my reaction: impressive and concise. I learned quite a bit, and it didn't hurt at all. It reminded me of the paradoxical stability and instability of religions. And I'm impressed that Orthodox Christianity has endured schisms, Reformations, and all sorts of challenges. I wonder if it will survive much longer; the threats are huge.

  4. Look at Judaism -- much older, nearly universally persecuted, and yet still alive and kicking. Today's pressures are just a snapshot -- very temporal. If I were an immortal betting man, I'd say the Orthodox will outlive their enemies. Like Russia, they can take more abuse than their enemies have time to throw at them.

    Your comment reminds me of a cartoon about the Catholics and their enemies:


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