Book Review: Light from the Christian East

Payton, James R. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2007. Softcover.

(Review copy courtesy of InterVarsity Press.)

Light from the Christian EastPurchase: IVP | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 0830825940 / 9780830825943

The Word Guild 2008 Canadian Christian Writing Awards winner!

Book Excerpts:

PDFPrologue

PDF1. Historical Perspectives

PDFScripture Index (corrected)



James R. Payton Jr. (PhD, University of Waterloo, Canada) is a professor of history at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He has studied, taught and been in dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy for many years and is the author of a number of articles on Orthodoxy and Protestant-Orthodox relations.

Introduction

Western Christians, though occasionally knowledgeable about the history of the Western church, are often profoundly ignorant about what is arguably the oldest of the three main traditions of Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy (or just Orthodoxy). For Western Christians interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of Orthodoxy or Greek rather than Latin theology, or for those interested in broadening their theological horizons and developing a deeper appreciation of the way God has used His people, Light from the Christian East is a unique and helpful introduction to Orthodox Christianity. Rather than providing a comprehensive survey of Orthodox theology, practice, or history, James R. Payton Jr. wants “to introduce Western Christians readers to some of the distinctive perspectives and emphases of Eastern Orthodoxy in a way that facilitates understanding and appreciation” (p. 15). To this end through over thirteen chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, Payton focuses on aspects of Orthodoxy that may particularly interest, trouble, or confuse Western Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants alike.

Content

Payton begins with a historical overview of Eastern and Western Christianity and of the manner in which the different civilizations (East and West) shaped the context in which the church thought and lived. This chapter is valuable for its historical content and is helpful in orienting the reader to major contrasts between the East and the West. Moving through a discussion of Western reactions to Orthodoxy, Payton then focuses on Orthodoxy’s approach to doctrine and proceeds to provide a series of chapters on the major doctrinal views of Orthodoxy: the nature of theology, creation, fall, the accomplishment and application of salvation. I found these chapters to be particularly interesting, edifying, and stimulating. One learns a great deal of patristic theology simply by studying Orthodoxy, and Payton, though himself a Protestant, is careful to note areas in which the West can learn and benefit from Orthodoxy’s perspectives. The last five chapters of the book deal with the nature of grace (Orthodoxy’s fascinating answer to what grace is: God!), the church, icons (a particularly engaging chapter, rich in insights for students of the history of doctrine and all who care about the nature of Christian art), tradition and Scripture, and prayer.

If I listed all the helpful, insightful, and genuinely enriching aspects of this book, my review would exceed its limits. What follows are a few examples of what I found particularly stimulating and interesting in Orthodoxy. A major difference between Eastern and Western theology (Roman Catholic and Protestant) is in their respective understandings of theology. Orthodoxy trusts far less in human reason than the West and thus has a much richer tradition of piety being an essential part of theology than in the West. As an example of this difference, Payton notes that in the West the word orthodox is primarily used to refer to right belief, whereas in Eastern Christianity orthodox “is used for that which gives proper glory to God … Eastern Orthodoxy uses orthodox to describe a style of life and worship that is faithful to the Christian message” (p. 58). This was a refreshing and challenging perspective, particularly given the sometimes scholastic style and content of many of our internecine theological disputes (for example, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the ordo salutis, etc.) One of my favorite points of doctrinal difference, if not in content at least in emphasis, between the West and East is Orthodoxy’s view of salvation. Those familiar with Gustaf Aulen’s classic study, Christus Victor, are already broadly familiar with Orthodoxy’s concept of salvation. Payton notes that although Western Christians often think of humanity’s plight “in terms of our situation, Orthodoxy sees the problem in terms of our enemies (sin, death and the devil)” (p. 122). In the doctrine of “recapitulation,” (re-heading) Christ recapitulates Adam’s life, in every point succeeding where Adam failed, and in every point gaining victory where the first Adam was defeated. “Christ has thus redirected the course of history; he has reclaimed the whole of creation of God’s purpose.” He frees us from our bondage to sin, Satan, and death; and is the Victor of these forces of evil that enslave the cosmos. Salvation then in Orthodoxy “is not just for individuals, souls or human beings; it is for all creation” (p. 125). Orthodoxy seems to capture the theology that underlies Romans 8:19-24 much better than conservative Protestant’s often exclusive emphasis on the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death. These are only a few points that I found interesting and helpful: I also was struck by Orthodoxy’s doctrine of God, their use of icons, and their conception of what we call “sanctification” (they refer to it as deification from the Greek word theosis).

Conclusion

Light from the Christian East has much to commend it and little worthy of criticism. Payton’s scholarship is impeccable; his prose is lucid, the chapters are well organized and divided into easily digestible sections, and—perhaps most importantly—his perspective is truly appreciative. Even on the doctrinal points where Western and Eastern Christians differ significantly (for example, Orthodoxy never developed a doctrine of sin analogous to Augustine’s, thus Orthodoxy’s followers would not affirm the doctrine of Original Sin), Payton’s tone and means of introducing and explaining the points at hand are careful, never polemic, and clearly written with the intention of helping suspicious or surprised readers understand the issue as Orthodoxy understand it. On top of all these praiseworthy features, the book also offers a “For Further Reading” section with an excellent annotated bibliography. It is possible that some readers, particularly fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals, may notice comments that suggest Payton is not as conservative as they might wish; but these are minor remarks at best, and they hardly constitute a significant aspect of the book.

Having read many introductory works, I can say that few if any have ever been as edifying and enjoyable as Light from the Christian East. I finished the book with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of church history and historical theology, a new respect for and interest in Orthodox Christianity, and a renewed sense of the importance of personal devotion to Christ and His church.

SamuelJoseph is a senior studying philosophy and English at Liberty University and working as a teaching assistant. Happily married to Audrey, he is the president of the Virginia Zeta chapter of Phi Sigma Tau and helps direct Liberty University’s Philosophy Club. He is active in his local church, Grace Assembly, and enjoys reading in theology, philosophy, history, and culture. He will be applying to graduate programs in philosophy and theology for fall 2010.


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