Review: Through Western Eyes (Letham)

Here’s my review of Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Fern, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2007). It is in the new issue of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics.

Christians in the West have little understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy. Though at odds, Roman Catholics and Protestants have a fairly good take on each others’ faith and practice. Both, however, are largely ignorant of their Eastern brethren. All three Christian expressions share in the rich theological tradition of the patristic period and look back to fathers like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and the early creeds for their Christology and doctrine of God. After the split between East and West, precipitated by differences in Greek and Latin, the two streams diverged with little confluence. While the West underwent theological growth influenced by medieval and Reformation cultures, and had to undergo the challenges of the Enlightenment, the East was largely untouched by these cultural shifts. As a result, the two sides of the split look very different and often have different ways of expressing their Christian faith.

Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes goes a long way to helping Protestants, especially those conscious of their Reformation heritage, understand the theological development and appearance of the East. Letham was a Presbyterian minister in the U.S. A., and has held teaching positions at Westminster Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. Currently he teaches at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He has authored important works on the Trinity and Christology that deal well with patristics and is an expert in post-Reformation history. He is more than qualified to write a book of this nature.

While Letham’s work does not supersede Timothy Ware’s indispensable introduction to Eastern orthodoxy, this is still an important book. The book is divided into three parts, the first on historical matters, the second on theology and the third on the comparisons and contrasts between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Letham writes with great respect for his subject so that any Orthodox believer could read this appreciatively. He handles the primary source documents, especially of the early church, with precision. The book is clearly written with a glossary of terms provided at the end of the book for help with those difficult theological terms like “substance,” “perichoresis,” or “filioque.” Unfortunately, because the book is geared towards introduction, an index would be useful but is lacking.

The opening part on history works as an introduction to patristics. The early debates over the person of Christ, the resultant creeds, and their significance for the church at large are explored. This is helpful not only for understanding the Orthodox, but church history in general. The fifth chapter carries the story beyond the shared history of East and West into the historical changes in the Greek churches—this is informative for those who are only familiar with the trajectory that went into the European middle ages. A suggested source that Letham should use but didn’t is the work of Baylor’s Philip Jenkins, but this does not detract from his overall survey.

The second part on theology is where the issues of what the Orthodox believe is most notable. Letham begins in chapter six with a discussion of prayer and iconography. For Protestants, icons are probably the most visual curiosity of Orthodox practice. It is interesting to learn the craft of iconography where “Novelty is anathema, faithfulness to the archetype all important” (145). This is why characters in an icon all look so similar; it is not their historical likeness that is depicted but the ideal, or archetype of humanity in God’s image. Using John of Damascus’ early treatise on icons, Letham explains that they are not to be worshiped (latreia) but venerated (proskunēsis). This is an area of most concern for Protestants who invoke the second commandment against the Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Letham helps us understand that opposition to icons, in Orthodox eyes, is a drift towards Docetism. He also draws some comparison between the Orthodox emphasis on images and the common practice, even amongst the Reformed, of framing photographs or pictures of favourite theologians as means of encouragement in the faith. Letham rightly asks the Orthodox, though, whether the line between worship and veneration is as clear as they believe it is, especially in popular practice.

In this second section readers also learn of the Orthodox emphasis on Scripture, how their services and space are saturated with it. He deals with the cantankerous issue of the filioque controversy and the question of theosis, or deification. The final chapter in this part centers on the gospel and the way Orthodox Christians understand how a sinner is justified before a holy God. Letham quotes from early Orthodox theologians like Simeon the New Theologian and Mark the Ascetic to demonstrate the early belief in justification apart from works. While contemporary Orthodox thought does not speak of justification in the juridical terms emphasized at the Reformation, for all intents and purposes, Letham sees little barrier between the Orthodox and the Reformed view. The Orthodox concern for one who converts from Protestantism is that they adhere to their sacramentology and renounce any memorial view of the Eucharist and affirm transubstantiation and the five sacraments. Justification itself does not come in for questioning or change.

The final part helps readers put everything that they have read thus far into perspective. Letham points out areas of agreement, misunderstanding (both for Orthodox and Reformed) and disagreement, and concludes with suggestions for future discussion between Protestants and the Orthodox. This section summarizes comments that Letham has made throughout the book. For instance, areas of “critical concern” from the Reformed perspective include the Orthodox’s downplaying of preaching, the relationship between Scripture and tradition, the doctrine of the Trinity as influenced by Gregory Palamas, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and the Orthodox’s Arminian-style synergy in salvation. Letham concludes that “Orthodoxy is closer to classic Protestantism than is Rome” (285).

Letham writes from the conviction that the gospel and the Word of God must not be compromised and writes as a committed Reformed Protestant. At the same time, he is also concerned for ecumenical issues of unity across the East/West divide. This book goes a long way towards opening up the doors of understanding between the Orthodox and Protestants. It is a model of fair-mindedness without compromise. Through Western Eyes will be of great benefit to students of world religions, missiology or ecumenics and should be read by all who desire to know about those Christians who worship in large buildings, sometimes in different languages, with different dress and a reverence for the early traditions.


1 Comment

Filed under apologetics, books, eastern orthodox, hope's reason, reviews

One response to “Review: Through Western Eyes (Letham)

  1. Pingback: Christian Focus Across The Web - October 14, 2011 | Christian Focus Booknotes

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