For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book.
The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* represents an approachable, readable account that illuminates not only the history of Orthodoxy but also its practices. McGuckin is the Nielsen Emeritus Professor of Byzantine Christian Studies at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University and an archpriest in the Romanian Orthodox Church, and he rightly laments Western Christians’ dearth of understanding about Orthodoxy. The history of one of the three major branches of Christianity deserves the attention of the other two—Catholics and Protestants.
To start, I would observe that his discussion of church history in general is of particular interest to church historians. While many debate the best historical methodology for studying Christianity, McGuckin says, “The Orthodox insist that church history is quintessentially a theological reading of historical events” (20). Which raises the question that has enamored historians for decades: Can Christians write unbiased histories of their own people? Really, can anyone write unbiased histories of any group—whether their own tribe or not? Our age makes it seem increasingly hard to believe that anyone can, and so the more honest of us tend increasingly to want to admit our biases up front.
What stands out about McGuckin’s statement, however, is something more than intellectual honesty; it is confessional integrity. In other words, McGuckin is operating in what appears to be the normal Orthodox pattern of viewing church history through a theological lens. From that standpoint, the reader is unsurprised to see that the book offers a defense of why readers should consider the benefits of Orthodoxy, whether for themselves or for Christianity as a whole. McGuckin is not shy about Orthodoxy’s historical shortcomings, but he also aims to give readers a taste of what makes Orthodoxy distinct and what it offers the world.
There is much I could highlight from a book that covers two thousand years of history. McGuckin discusses expected episodes and elements, of course, such as the icon controversy, the debate over filioque, and the fall of Constantinople. In each case, he offers insider insight that helps readers understand how the Orthodox view their theology and history.
I found chapters 2 and 3 to feel familiar, rehearsing themes and people commonly featured in Western histories of the church. As McGuckin states, “the patristic age” is “the heritage, other than the New Testament itself, that the Western Latin and Eastern Orthodox worlds still have in common” (87). In these chapters, readers remember especially the influence of Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor—as well as the development of the early ecumenical councils.
Despite a shared heritage, East and West also differ on sundry doctrinal points, obviously, and McGuckin helpfully highlights some of these differences throughout the book. For example, while the Orthodox greatly value Scripture, they hold that “the single sense of the Sacred Tradition of Revelation” is “not restricted” to Scripture—a point that differs especially with Protestants and their historical commitment to sola Scriptura (26). (Elsewhere on this blog, I discuss sola Scriptura in Mark Noll’s treatment of the Bible in American public life and in Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s account of Reformed catholicity.)
While the Orthodox “never endorsed a hard doctrine of predestination,” they do hold to “a strong sense of the mystery and grace of divine election” (58). In this case, language seems to fail. I suspect that Reformed Protestants would depict their own predestinarian doctrine in kinder terms, as McGuckin has done for Orthodoxy, even embracing language of “the mystery and grace of divine election” and nuancing (or rejecting) the terminology of “hard” predestination (whatever is meant by that). But the efforts at distinctions, if fuzzy, are still welcome. Clearer differences appear in the practices of Orthodoxy compared to the Reformed tradition—including the veneration of icons and prayers for the dead (284–87).
Of all the chapters, McGuckin’s discussion of Jesus and the New Testament (chap. 1) seemed the most enigmatic. There Jesus and his apostles appear to have less understanding of the big picture and only develop a “sense” of their mission as it gradually unfolds before them (e.g., 30). Perhaps the most illuminating chapter, in my view, was the discussion of Orthodoxy under Communist rule in Russia. There one finds a clear exposition of what it means for the Orthodox to pursue Christian fidelity in incredibly adverse conditions.
McGuckin closes his book with two chapters that depart from the largely chronological framework for the preceding chapters of the book. In chapter 9, he describes some “recent outstanding Orthodox figures” whose stories offer remarkable faithfulness and service in the face of enormous odds. And in chapter 10, he paints a picture of what liturgy and life look like in an average Orthodox church. These chapters serve as a delightful garnish to the meat and potatoes of the book’s historical narrative.
Yet McGuckin has a deeper purpose in presenting these chapters. He hopes that people will read of these individuals and see that “Orthodoxy is, simply, Christianity” (256). And he seeks readers to see how “Orthodoxy can serve to help Christianity in general today” (300). Perhaps the best way Orthodoxy can aid modern-day Christians is to point them to their “ancient heritage” in the patristic era, which they should take “as their own” (300). McGuckin rightly calls us to read more of the fathers, and we would all benefit by taking this commendation from Orthodoxy.
McGuckin also says that although Orthodoxy is “a minority and somewhat poor church in Western countries,” it is “spiritually and intellectually rich” (303). He suggests that if Orthodoxy can offer these gifts with humility, it may be able to “renew the Western churches profoundly and even, perhaps, lead them in this postmodern religious wilderness to a new stage of reconstituting Christianity in the West” (303). While the sentiment here is certainly appreciated, it may not be surprising that many Protestants and Catholics will find McGuckin’s proposal to be more than a bit optimistic.
From the standpoint of understanding church history, McGuckin’s Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* is a welcome contribution to the field. Church historians need to attend not only to developments in Western church history but also to developments in the global church, which certainly includes Eastern Orthodoxy. And McGuckin provides a valuable model of doing church history, with its attention not merely to the chronological history of the church but also to the liturgical life and practices of the church along with key individuals within it.
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***I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.