Book Review: Through Western Eyes by Robert Letham

Imagine two English-speaking groups that are completely isolated from each other. After 1,000 years of separation, they are finally able to establish contact. Following such a significant period, chances are their customs and usage of language would be significantly different; so much so that there would be a great deal of disagreement on vital issues, an over-reliance upon cultural assumptions when dialoging, and a lot of talking past each other.

In some ways, this is a helpful analogy to describe Reformed relations with the Eastern Orthodox (EO) Church: because of our separation from them for many centuries, we and they have had different emphases, histories, and assumptions that have led to different conclusions about what comprises the Christian faith, and what does not. 

For instance, while Protestants look at the EO’s heavy emphasis on tradition with a jaundiced eye, EO adherents can be all too quick to write Protestants off as a schism of a schism: the Roman Catholic and EO Churches separated in 1054, and the Protestant Reformation began when the Reformers left the Catholic Church nearly 500 years later. It is for this reason that the above analogy is helpful in discussing the relationships between the two bodies: they both claim the name of Christ but until recently, there have been very few points of contact.  

But while helpful, this analogy is by no means perfect. While there are greater misunderstandings between the Reformed and EO churches than there probably should be, it is also true that there are unbridgeable differences between the two. 

Robert Letham helps his readers to navigate these areas in his book, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy, A Reformed Perspective. He displays the areas of agreement in part one, where he focuses on the seven ancient Ecumenical Councils of the Church (Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.) where doctrinal disputes about the person, character, and work of Christ were resolved. It is a helpful reminder of the truths that we have in common, and of the debt that the West owes the East.

Letham also shows his readers that the EO and Reformed churches are surprisingly in closer agreement with each other than to Rome on questions of church polity and justification by faith–although lack of clarity and differing emphases on the doctrine of salvation will continue to divide the two camps on the latter topic. 

Especially helpful is his section on iconography, which is likely the most controversial issue that separates East from West. Letham takes the time to outline the history and the nuanced theological arguments behind it, and why it is so integral to EO faith and practice. In short, while Reformed churches are right to not use icons in worship, it will take a lot more than simply declaring that they are violations of the Second Commandment to persuade EO adherents. 

Also of great importance are the chapters on Scripture and Tradition, Church and Sacraments, the Trinity, and Salvation. 

In the second-to-last chapter, Letham provides a helpful summary on the areas of agreement (and it bears repeating there are more than initially meets the eye), legitimate disagreement (especially the EO’s highly synergistic view of salvation), misunderstanding (the EO’s failure to understand God’s sovereignty in salvation), and where to go from here. 

In closing, it has been said that if one truly wishes to be honorable in debates, they must be able to state their opponent’s position in such a way that the opponent would wish they had written it themselves. It is clear that Letham has done this, as Through Western Eyes is no polemic; rather, it is a scholarly yet very accessible volume that strives to be fair, and admonishes both sides when they have not accurately represented each other’s views.

But at the same time, neither is Letham a pushover; while he advocates further discussion with the EO Church, he also states that “[T]he existence of basic disagreements…requires caution and forbids compromise. The great truths rediscovered at the Reformation cannot be bartered away. It is incumbent on the Reformed to demonstrate that these are entailments of the classic creeds and ecumenical councils.”

For these reasons, I highly recommend Through Western Eyes to anyone who wants to gain a careful and nuanced understanding of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

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