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Enlightened face of Orthodoxy

02 June 2009

Hugh Wybrew enjoys an insightful guide to Eastern theology

The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology
Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, editors

Cambridge University Press £17.99 (pbk), £45 (hbk)
(978-0-521-68338-8 pbk) (978-0-5218-6484-8 hbk)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20, £40.50

IN THEIR preface, the editors of this very useful book express their view that, although there is an extensive body of literature about the Orthodox Church in Western languages, the Orthodox theological tradition as a whole remains little known in the West. Their intention is to present that tradition as it is understood and lived today.

A brief historical overview of Eastern Orthodox Christianity — the book does not deal with the Oriental Orthodox — precedes a first part describing the main aspects of Orthodox doctrine and tradition: scripture and tradition, biblical interpretation, the Trinity, creation, the human person, Christ and salvation, eschatology, the Church, icons, and spirituality.

A second part deals with the formation and character of contemporary Orthodox theology: the enduring influence of the early church Fathers, the patristic revival of the 20th century, the chief figures and themes in modern Russian and Greek theology, and the renaissance in the Patriarchate of Antioch, with a final chapter on Orthodoxy in the West and its attitude to other Christian traditions.

The majority of contributors are Orthodox living and, for the most part, born in the West, some of them converts, with other contributions from Russian, Greek, and Arab theologians. All are acquainted with other Christian traditions and are aware of the challenges of the ecumenical movement and the modern world.

The book as a whole represents what has been called “enlightened Orthodoxy”. Faithful to the tradition they have inherited or adopted, the authors are also clear that it is not static, but alive and capable of developing fresh insights. In the 20th century, much Orthodox theological reflection took place outside countries traditionally Orthodox, not least in the Russian diaspora, with its theological schools of St Sergius in Paris and St Vladimir in New York. It was largely, though not exclusively, in the West that, as the preface says, “Building on its patristic foundations, Orthodox theology has blossomed in the modern period.”

At a time when there are strong traditionalist voices in the Orthodox — as in other — Churches, often anti-Western and anti-ecumenical, this book presents the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition in an attractive light, pointing out where it differs from the Western. Readers who know little about Orthodoxy will find here clear information attractively presented, and those who know something will be grateful for the insights the book gives into modern developments in a Christian tradition now firmly established in the West.

Canon Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.

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