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A discipline that is a way of life

20 September 2013

Hugh Wybrew on a book that shows how different the East is

Monk in a mulberry tree: Gabriel, of Mor Gabriel Monastery, in the Tur Abdin region of south-east Turkey, in a photo in Nightingales in the Mountain of Slaves by Stephen Griffith (self-published by the author as an e-book, £6.99, available from Amazon). For 15 years, Griffith visited the villages and monasteries of the region, beginning at a time of civil war and mass flight by the Christian minority. It has, however, been a period of great change for Turkey, these Syriac Orthodox Christians, and the author, too, he records, in an account that also includes many things that have not changed since medieval times

Monk in a mulberry tree: Gabriel, of Mor Gabriel Monastery, in the Tur Abdin region of south-east Turkey, in a photo in Nightingales in the Mountain...

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology
Andrew Louth
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70  (Use code CT449 )

FOR many years, the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church has been Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware's The Orthodox Church. In his guide to further reading, Andrew Louth commends this book as a more formal introduction to Eastern Orthodox theology. His own book he describes as a personal, more informal account, whose origin was in lectures given at the Amsterdam Centre for Eastern Orthodox Theology, where he is Visiting Professor.

A former Anglican priest, now Professor Emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, Dr Louth introduces readers to a Christian tradition into which he has deeply entered, and of which his exposition is at once scholarly, lively, and appealing.

After a brief introduction explaining who the Orthodox are, he calls his first chapter "Thinking and doing, being and praying", and makes it clear that he understands an introduction to Eastern Orthodox theology as an introduction to a way of life. Throughout the book, in which he writes about the fundamental doctrines of Orthodoxy, he insists that theology as an exercise in intellectual understanding cannot be separated from prayer and worship, and from growth in a relationship with God whose goal is deification.

So in his exposition he draws as much on liturgical texts as on scripture, the Fathers, and modern Orthodox theologians. At the heart of Orthodox theology, he is clear, is an engagement with God, a commitment to a way of thinking, living, and praying. Theology has to be rooted in experience.

This conviction runs through Louth's presentation of the doctrines of God as Trinity, creation, the person of Jesus Christ, sin, death and repentance, being human in the image of God in the Church, sacraments and icons, time and the liturgy, and the last things and eternal life. These, are of course, the doctrines for the most part fundamental to all the historic Christian traditions. Yet the Eastern Orthodox tradition understands them in a way that distinguishes Eastern Orthodoxy from any Western presentation of Christianity. The distinction is perhaps not absolute: in recent decades Orthodox theology has had a significant influence among Western Christians of various traditions.

Louth's book is an attractive and accessible introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy for those who want to make its first acquaintance, while readers familiar with the Orthodox tradition will gain fresh insights from this admirable personal presentation.

Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen's, Oxford, and Catechist of Exeter College.

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