East and West

My ongoing study of baptism has led me to look at the early church fathers and then, consequently, to Eastern Orthodox perspectives. I am always curious to find out what kinds of assumptions I hold when it comes to my understanding of the faith. This understanding can be either theological arguments or, more likely, unexamined views. The assumptions can be consciously or unconsciously held. In other words, what do I take as truth? (I wrote something about this before.) The question is not only in terms of final conclusions, but also in terms of what is the right way to frame one’s perspective. The “givens” we assume and often hold uncritically play a big role in the conclusions we accept.

My history is Protestant in terms of my foundational training. Recently I have been curious about Catholicism, and have done some studying in that regard. Consequently my thinking has expanded and I have been humbled by how little I know. Now I find the Orthodox Church fascinating—and I wonder which way is right, or more right; which perspective is the best to have, and which place is the best from which to start?

With this in mind, I was shook up somewhat by the following passage from James Payton’s book, Light from the Christian East. He says:

As heir to the emphasis of Roman civilization, Christianity in the Latin West was much concerned with law. In that Roman legal tradition for which the Roman Empire was justly famous, concerns with status before the law, with guilt and justice, with debt and credit, and with other similar matters were foundational, ultimate considerations. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that Western Christian theology, ecclesiastical practice and piety all came to reflect concerns with matters that properly belong in a court of law—specifically, in God’s court. This was true already in the period of antiquity; it remained so throughout the Middle Ages in the West; it is unmistakable in the concerns of the Protestant Reformation as well. Questions of merit and debt, of satisfaction and payment, of justification and condemnation, are all appropriate and natural questions within this approach. To this day, Western Christianity has been shaped by this ancient Roman heritage which has been transmitted down through the centuries.

In contrast, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was not preoccupied with questions of law and legal standing. The prior concerns of Hellenistic intellectual culture shaped both the questions asked and the answers given by the church in that culture. In the East, those questions, rooted in careful philosophical thought, converged especially on the contrast between light and darkness, life and death, spirit and matter, and on the limitations of human reason. Christians in the East sought to address the underlying questions of their society by emphasizing those elements of the apostolic message that spoke to such issues. Questions of guilt and legality, for example, or of satisfaction and payment were not the main issues for Eastern Christianity; instead, Eastern Christians focused on the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and communion with God. Even so, Christianity in the East was reserved about the capacities of human reason to express adequately the mysteries of the faith.

I realize that most of my formal understanding of Christianity is fully and fundamentally western. I say formal because along with my theology there is also my experience and intuition. Consequently, and as I study more and more beyond the “safe” boundaries proscribed by my Protestant training, I am finding the Eastern Christian perspective tugging at me. This is due, in part at least, to the fact that my experience points to “the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and on communion with God.” I have so much more to learn about Eastern Christianity but, thus far, it fascinates me deeply.

15 thoughts on “East and West”

  1. Tucker (right?),

    Very interesting post. I wonder if I agree that eastern Christianity was absorbed with ideas drawn from Hellenistic philosophy, but it is easy to see how they spent a lot of time responding to them, just as we presently respond to and are influenced by the likes of William James, John Locke, Rene Descartes, and John Dewey.

    One critical turning point in the west seems to have been the work of Anselm, who came up with what Orthodox consider an overly rational argument for the existence of God and, even more, developed a soteriology rooted entirely in the judicial notion of salvation, in which every sin is eternal because God is eternal, so they all need an eternal punishment, so only God could take that on.

    That is, of course, a caricature, but it summarizes the new direction in soteriology. This led the western church, in the eastern view, down an overly legalistic path that in turn led to a reaction to that excess, but structured within its assumptions, called the Reformation.

    You are on an exciting pilgrimage. Don’t forget to enjoy it!

    1. Andrew,

      That’s for stopping by. I do think the distinction presented here by Payton is a bit simplistic, at least in these two paragraphs (he goes into a little more detail in the book). What strikes me the most is how much I don’t know about Eastern Christianity, how formed I am by Western Christianity, and how I am much less afraid to consider going down a different path than the one with which I have been most familiar. As a Protestant by training the Catholic church was presented to me as off limits (I’m sure you know the arguments) and the Eastern church was not presented at all. I internalized all that and only recently have realized there is much to reconsider.

      And, I have to say, I am finding this fascinating and loads of fun.

  2. Oh, I’m so glad you posted this! T, as you know, I know very very little about Eastern Christianity, so I hope you will keep educating me! I have these two books: Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1594731039) and The Orthodox Way, Ware. I started reading Philokalia last week and haven’t read any of The Orthodox Way yet. Do you have either of these books?
    Also, I just ordered this book: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1936270137 and plan to read it.

    Thanks for this post. K

    1. Kim, I am also reading ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology’ by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky. It is considered a standard source of Orthodox theology. In that sense it is less an introduction and more a laying out of doctrine, though not a systematic theology in the sense that we tend to think of that. It is heavy, but I love it.

    2. Wow, Kimberly, you go right for the tough stuff with the Philokalia! Straight to the heart.

      I love The Orthodox Way. One night I was at a Lutheran conference where I was to speak on the distinctives of classical education and I wanted to think about the Christian view of man and God, so I read his chapter on the Trinity. My soul swelled like an ocean wave. It’s so beautiful.

    1. Kim, I have been trying to change the font since I createed this blog, but, alas, the font and font size are hard coded into the theme. I am working on a workaround that might solve it. In this case have to say Blogger is easier to work with. Of course, maybe you just need to get glasses and aren’t admitting it.

      1. T, I’ve been trying to get glasses for ages (all the super cool people have them), but dang it! God seems to have thought I needed 20/15 vision. So, I’ll have to wait until I’m a little wiser…

        And the font. I know, D. had to tweek my font a few times and found it difficult at first, but he did it while still keeping the theme. Call him today.

    1. The key for me is that I am trying to make changes to the blog’s style and format without paying WordPress. I was able to change the font to something a little more readable, but if I want to make any CSS changes I have to pay for that. My cheapness will be my reader’s bane, for now.

  3. What a treat to be able to listen in on these conversations! As you may know, my brother Clayton (now baptized Daniel) converted to Orthodox Christianity a few years ago. It has been a very interesting journey for our family, and a good one. David and I, while fully committed to our beloved little evangelical church plant here in Baltimore, feel that we have much in common and much to learn from our Orthodox brethren.

    1. Axon, it’s great to have you comment. I hope you and your family are doing well. I too feel that we have much to learn from the Orthodox church. I am curious where it may lead.

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