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Orthodoxy and heterodoxy (book review)

29 April 2017

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: : Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious LandscapeOrthodoxy and Heterodoxy: : Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape by Andrew Stephen Damick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the plural multicultural world in which we live we encounter all kinds of religious ideas and worldviews. We very often encounter them as soundbites on broadcast media or tweets on social media, without any context, and so have no way to evaluate them in relation to what we already know. Orthodox Christians experience this, and, especially for those living outside traditionally Orthodox countries, what they hear from the world around the is likely to be different in many ways from Orthodoxy.

This book sets out to give Orthodox Christians the information and tools they need to cope with that.

If, for example, you see an adherent of Cao Dai being interviewed on TV, you may think, “Cao Dai? What’s that?”

This book gives a summary of its history and teachings, and how those teachings differ from the Orthodox Christian faith.

I’ve posted reviews of this book elsewhere, on Amazon and Good Reads, but here I’ll go into a little more detail, because I think it might be worth discussing, and some comments might be helpful if there is ever a third edition.

The book starts with a brief summary of Orthodox history and doctrine, and then deals with other religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian. There are chapters on the Roman Catholic Church, the Magisterial Reformation (a term that was new to me), the Radical Reformation, Evangelicalism and Revivalism, and several more Christian and semi-Christian movements. Then there are chapters on other religions, including major religions like Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, and others like Santeria and Cao Dai, with an appendix on atheism and agnosticism.

In good postmodern fashion, the author also includes an appendix telling of his own journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, not that this is really so necessary, as he makes clear where he is coming from in the first chapter, but it is also good to know. All too often in online discussions of religion, and sometimes in printed books, people are quick to say what they think is wrong, but fail to say what they think is right, and do not mention the criteria by which they judge such things. This book does not suffer from that failing. The author generally tries to be as fair as possible to the groups whose teachings and practices he describes, and then to explain not only the points at which they differ from Orthodox Christianity, but also the things they have in common.

I found the book was generally pretty good in accomplishing what it sets out to do. The descriptions seemed adequate and fair, and the critique was perceptive. Some chapters and sections, however,were better than others. Chapters 2-4, on the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation are good, but, rather surprisingly, in view of the author’s Evangelical Protestant background, the chapter on Evangelicalism and Revivalism was the weakest in the book, and a bunch of 18th and 19th-century religious movements were tossed in, some of them questionably evangelical. The following chapter, on Pentecostalism was, in rather surprising contrast, the most thorough in the book.

I’ll say a little more about the treatment of Evangelism and Revivalism here.

Perhaps Fr Andrew felt too close to the topic, but I think some important points were missed in the chapter. Fr Andrew is not unaware of these points, because he himself makes them in the conclusion, and yet does not make them when trying to account for Evangelicalism and Revivalism.

In his conclusion he says:

I don’t want everyone to be Orthodox just in terms of membership in a visible body. Evangelism is about more than that kind of conversion. Our conversion is actually to Christ, not to “Orthodoxy” (defined here as a mere label, membership, or idea). There are, unfortunately, many who are “Orthodox” but do not seem to know Christ or His Gospel.

and

I am not suggesting a Churchless “Christianity,” but rather warning against a Christless “Church.” Just as there is no Christianity without the Church, there is also no Church without Christ. If I cannot detect Jesus Christ—in all His warmth, personality (if we can use such a word), and transformative love—in someone’s speaking about the Church, then I have reason to doubt whether I should heed him.

Now I think that is precisely what accounts for the appearance of revivalism, and the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century. The revivalists were faced with what seemed to them to be a “Christless Church”. When he speaks about “Jesus Christ — in all his warmth, personality” can we not see what gave rise to expressions like “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour”?

John Wesley “felt his heart strangely warmed” as a result of an encounter with Moravian pietism, and went around Britain preaching in the open air. But his contemporary St Cosmas the Aetolian did much the same thing in the Balkans.

No, the Western revivalists did not have the resources of Orthodoxy to draw on (though John Wesley was quite well read in the Church Fathers), but St Cosmas found that the resources of Orthodoxy in the Balkans were sadly underused. And consider something like Charles Wesley’s “revival hymn” And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood (listen here). I doubt that there is much in it that would not be acceptable in Orthodox theology. Calvinists, on the other hand, if they are really paying attention to the words, hate it.

The paragraphs from Fr Andrew’s book that I quoted from above are the essence of Evangelicalism. It’s not about doctrine (like Adventism, Dispensationalism or Fundamentalism). It’s about being converted to Christ.

In his chapter on Evangelicalism Fr Andrew does say “The feeling that religion had become “dead” spread like a virus through the churches of the Reformation.” But perhaps it was more than just a feeling. It was an observation that the churches of the reformation were indeed “reformed”, but they were also “Christless”, to use Fr Andrew’s term. And the dead bones needed to be brought to life — that is what “revival” means.

It was also not John Wesley’s intention to have a “churchless Christianity”. The church was there, and people could go to their parish churches for the sacraments, but how could they meet Christ in the sacraments if they did not know him? As someone once said, the Anglican Church had splendid plumbing, it’s just a pity that there is no water in the pipes.” It was only after the Church of England fumbled and dropped the ball that Wesley changed Methodism from a revival movement into a new denomination and started celebrating the sacraments apart from the Church of England.

And while it is true that there is nothing in the Church Fathers about “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour” (and yes, many Evangelicals think that that is enough), the baptism (reception of catechumens) service of the Orthodox Church is as powerful as any Evangelical altar call when the priest says “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” and the catechumen says”I believe in him as King and God.”

All in all, I would say that Orthodoxy is more evangelical than the Evangelicals.

Another weakness I found was that some groups and movements were dealt with in considerable detail, even though their membership is small (the Branch Davidians, for example), while other more influential movements, like Neopaganism and Wicca, were given a briefer treatment. The section on Hinduism could have made some mention of Hindutva as well.

I have a few other minor quibbles.

Liberation theology (in the Roman Catholic Church) is dismissed as an attempt to unite church dogma with Marxist politics. I’d say it’s a bit more than that; it marks a shift, however slight, in Roman Catholic soteriology away from the “satisfaction” theory, and a bit closer to Orthodoxy.

I think he also confuses nihilism with subjective relativism (the idea that there is no universal truth, but only what is true “for me” or “for you”). Nihilism goes a lot further than that. It is the belief that nothing is true, nothing is knowable, nothing has value.

I think the book generally accomplishes what it sets out to do, and will be useful to Orthodox Christians who want to know how other religious groups differ from their own. I would strongly recommend it for Orthodox seminary students, especially those from non-Orthodox backgrounds. It could also be useful for members of other groups who want to learn more about Orthodoxy, though there is a caveat here: in Western Christianity there is an expectation that theology is something written in books, but even in Western theology, and much more in Orthodoxy, what can be written about theology in books is not all there is to theology.

You may order a copy of this book here

View all my reviews

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Matthew Dorning permalink
    29 April 2017 10:21 pm

    I have a hunch there will be another revised version in the future.

    Also available as an ebook here:
    http://www.orthodoxchristianebooks.com/

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  1. What is an Evangelical? | Khanya

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