Book review: “The Orthodox Church” by Timothy Ware

One time on my mission, I was knocking doors near the end of the day when my companion and I were surprisingly let in. Not only were we let in, but they agreed to here our message about God and Jesus Christ. We talked about the nature of God, the role of prophets, Christ’s ministry on the earth, the apostasy, and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the prophet Joseph Smith. But we were just as surprised as the confident response in the negative:

I cannot believe that, because I belong to the original church of Jesus Christ. Yes, there was an apostasy, but that was in the West. We maintained the tradition.

This man pulled out his Bible, which, he purported, was written in the same language that Jesus spoke (Aramaic). Nothing essential had been changed. My companion and I curiously asked questions, but the new-ness caught me off guard. I really had no idea where this man had come from! I had assumed that the Catholic Church was the only one who claimed to be inheritors of the primitive Church, and the rest of Christianity was derivative. I think my experience may be fairly general in the Church, unless you have already had an experience with Orthodox Christianity.

Looking back, I actually did know someone before my mission who was a Greek Orthodox. I went on a few dates with her in high school. All I registered though was that she wasn’t Mormon. Religion may have come up, but I probably instantly went into missionary mode without trying to understand where she was coming from.

Since my mission, what really caught my interest in Orthodoxy was my introduction to Nikolai Berdyaev through the works of Terryl and Fiona Givens. One author they quote quite frequently is Nikolai Berdyaev who hails from the Russian Orthodox tradition. Every time they would pull out a Berdyaev quote, I was astounded at the agreement with Latter-Day Saint doctrine. In one passage, Fiona Givens quotes Berdyaev to contrast the incomprehensibility of God as understood by Catholics and Protestants in the West with the much more familiar relationship with God found in the East:

The basic phenomenon of [Christian] religious life is the meeting and mutual interaction between God and man, the movement of God towards man and man towards God.

I have read more of Berdyaev since then, including The Destiny of Man. But this little primer on Orthodoxy proper seemed intriguing, and so I added it to my list. Let me share a few of my favorite things.

One true Church and councils

The Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, claims to be the inheritor of the legacy of the primitive Church. Also like us, the Orthodox Church claims to be the one true Church, and it tends to not rub the right way in some circles.

But the Orthodox Church, unlike us, is also old. It is so old, it views the Catholic Church as the schismatics. But in matters of doctrine, it aligns closely with the Catholic tradition (so much so that they actually don’t rebaptize Catholic converts or re-ordain Catholic priests who convert), aside from the quibble over papal authority:

The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honour, together with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom. Note that we have used the word ‘primacy’ not ‘supremacy.’ Orthodox regard the Pope as the bishop ‘who presides in love’, to adopt a phrase of St. Ignatius: Rome’s mistake- so Orthodox believe- has been to turn this primacy or ‘presidency of love’ into a supremacy of external power and jurisdiction.

From the Orthodox perspective, the Pope made an unjustified power move when he claimed supremacy over all bishops. Of interest to Latter-Day Saints, the Orthodox Church does not have a centralized structure like Catholics or our own Church. They don’t have an equivalent of the Twelve Apostles, and yet they claim Apostolic succession in the form of their bishops. A bishop presides over a see, the equivalent of a stake in our Church. If a doctrinal matter is going to be decided or if the Church is going to make take action as a whole, then bishops gather together in an Ecumenical Council. These are, admittedly, rare, and a full ecumenical council has not been called since the original seven. But this emphasis on councils is noteworthy:

Orthodoxy has always attached great importance in the place of councils in the life of the Church. It believes that the council is the chief organ whereby God has chosen to guide His people.

Elder Ballard could get behind that! It is interesting that Latter-Day Saints view these councils, such as the Council of Nicea, as evidence that God no longer led his Church. These decisions were of man and not of God. And yet our Church increasingly emphasizes the importance of councils. All decisions of the Twelve are done in council with one another.

In terms of doctrine, I think Latter-Day Saint doctrine would uphold a council of bishops as done in the Orthodox Church. Doctrine and Covenants actually outlines several bodies that are equal in authority:

Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.

The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world– thus differing from other officers in the church in their duties of their calling.

And they form a quorum, equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned.

The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world– thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.

And they form a quorum, equal in authority to that of the Twelve special witnesses or Apostles just named…

The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion, form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church, in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency, or to the traveling high council.

~ D&C 107:22-26,36

I remember growing hearing someone reasoning that this was an assurance that, even if we were to leave the entire First Presidency, Twelve Apostles, and Seventy (like someone bombed the conference center), we wouldn’t enter another apostasy. But interpreted another way, each of these bodies are literally equal in authority here and now. In this light, the Pope’s claims to authority could be compared to Brigham Young’s claims of authority, or the centralization process of correlation.

The Nicene Creed

Like Catholics and many Protestants, the Orthodox Church accepts the Nicene creed. Indeed, it is central to their doctrine and viewed with nearly the authority of scripture itself. I feel that Latter-Day Saints often don’t do nearly enough work to understand the Nicene creed. Take for instance Gordon B. Hinckley’s talk The Things of Which I Know in which he describes it:

When the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, he became aware of the divisiveness among the clergy concerning the nature of Deity. In an attempt to overcome this he gathered the eminent divines of the day to Nicaea in the year 325. Each participant was given opportunity to state his views. The argument only grew more heated. When a definition could not be reached, a compromise was made. It came to be known as the Nicene Creed, and its basic elements are recited by most of the Christian faithful.

Personally I cannot understand it. To me the creed is confusing.

How deeply grateful I am that we of this Church do not rely on any man-made statement of Deity. Our knowledge comes directly from the personal experience of Joseph Smith, who, while yet a boy, spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the Risen Lord.

Even more moderate accounts still seem to speak down to the Creed. Take for instance The Mormon Jesus by John G. Turner:
The great ecumenical councils narrowed the range of acceptable opinion about Jesus Christ.

I understand that both of these quotes must be taken in context. They are both highlighting the unique aspects of Latter-Day Saint theology, the first on our claim to revelation, and the second on our unique understanding of Jesus Christ. But for the average Latter-Day Saint, these feel like excuses to not truly engage or seek to understand the unique viewpoints of other Christians, and serve as an additional barrier between any dialogue.

When reading about the Creed, I learned that the Councils were intended to prevent the mysteries and paradoxes built within the Godhead of being pushed toward one extreme or another. For instance, one other question in the Creed was, is Christ fully God or fully human? The Creed asserted: both:

Christ must be fully God and fully human. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His humanity was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He was not presented as truly human (Monophysitism).

This key idea of maintaining the mystery, of no seeking overly simplistic explanations that push one way or another is key. I really appreciate Terryl Givens’ development of paradox as something worth preserving in the Latter-Day Saint tradition as well, and I think it is something we can respect and appreciate.

While I was reading The Orthodox Church, I was surprised much I could agree with in the Orthodox understanding of the creed. Their concept of diversity within unity seems very similar to our idea of one in purpose, but not in person. Ware explains how, in the mystery of one-ness and three-ness, Orthodox Christians come to the creed from the three individuals first, and explain their one-ness second:

It can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of persons; when reflecting on the crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talk more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on.

Already in that list of three or four items, you can see how Latter-Day Saint theology lines up nearly perfectly with the Orthodox train of thought. Despite our differences on the legitimacy of the Creed, I believe Latter-Day Saints should be very interested in the Orthodox tradition.

Modern-day martyrdom

One of the most compelling aspects of this book is its sweep of history. It starts from the primitive Church, citing the first gathering of the apostles in Acts as the first council of Jerusalem, working up to the present day. In other Church histories I have read, (say Socrates’ A History of the Church) I couldn’t really piece together how the schisms resulted into today’s modern churches. But that’s because Socrates was writing from 400 AD. An official split didn’t occur until the 12th century. I was too zoomed in.

One essential aspect of understanding Orthodoxy is the difference between East and West. It is as much a cultural difference as much as a doctrinal one, as Ware makes clear. In modern times, how much do you really know of political developments, culture, and history in, say, Russia and Turkey, let alone Lithuania, or Slovenia? Probably ISIS and the Cold War, and that’s about it. But Orthodox Christianity has been there the whole time– but sometimes under the rule of antagonistic regimes.

In 1453, Constantinople was invaded by the Turks. For the past 600 years, Orthodox Christianity has continued under Islamic rule. While the Turks were more accepting of differences in faith, Christians were de facto second class citizens for hundreds of years. The Patriarch of Constantinople was selected by the sultan, and he would impose a huge tax on whoever succeeded. For that reason, the sultan made sure the Patriarch was switched out on a regular basis– all better for business.

More recently, the Russian Orthodox Church was under the rule of a militant atheist regime in Soviet Russia. Depending on the Communist’s temperament at the time, the Church was either forced underground or used as a puppet to control the populace. But even there, the Church had many examples of integrity and modern-day martyrs.

Orthodoxy is a religion of tradition, but at the same time it is vibrant and new.

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