Forthcoming Book on Eastern Orthodox “Doctrine of Scripture”

Those of you interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Bible, biblical scholarship, and/or how all these connect, may be interested to learn of a forthcoming book from Fortress Press, What is the Bible? The Patristic Doctrine of Scipture. As with all titles, there are shortcomings, and one should be careful not to conclude that this one book settles the matter definitively.  Nonetheless, I look forward to getting my own copy and hope others will as well.  I consider one of the editors, Seraphim Danckaert, a friend, and another (Matthew Baker) I had begun to get to know during the last couple years of his life.  This book is yet another reminder of how impoverished we are by his loss, but I hope readers will benefit from his chapter in this book.  In full disclosure, I should note that I wrote chapter two.

Orthodoxy on the Road: 5 Suggestions for Attending Church While Traveling the US

I don’t do an extensive amount of travel, but I find myself in various parts of the United States a couple times a year.  Usually it’s for academic conferences, but also visiting family and friends (the Yahtzee is getting both in one trip).  One of my favorite things to do is visit Orthodox parishes all over the country, observing the different flavors of American culture through the lens of the Church.  Because the Church is the most familiar place to me in any locale (followed closely by Wal-Mart and the Super 8), the familiar similarities make the differences even more striking.

I love hearing “Blessed is the kang’um” at the start of the Liturgy in Texas.  There is a para-Russian joy in this California boy as he watches the snowfall through stained-glass windows during Orthros in Illinois.  The “college student convert” parishes dotting the West Coast, the “holy storage room” chapels in the rural southeast, the great cathedrals of the immigrant-heavy Midwest: all radically different, all radically Orthodox.  I’ve received communion by leavened-wafer intinction at a Western Rite parish; I’ve seen a congregation celebrate two dates for Christmas yet remain under one roof; I’ve attended Orthodox Vespers at the main altar of a Franciscan monastery.  As American as we are Orthodox, e pluribus unum doesn’t do us justice.

But I would never play Pollyanna: with these rich goods, of course, come difficulties and troubles.  The disjointedness of Orthodox jurisdictions makes it possible for the faithful to pick and choose their moral authorities.  Often, in situations where uniformity of praxis is vital, there is fundamental disagreement (such as fasting or the old/new calendar).  Many Orthodox priests are unable to deliver a homily that isn’t a straw man of another Christian tradition.  Sometimes I want to participate in the Divine Liturgy, but encounter the hardship of vastly different English translations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even parish to parish.  The worst is when, in a parish of 100% English-speakers, surprise!  The liturgy will include no English.  Invite a friend to church?  Not likely, until I’ve vetted it.

Yet striking out to a parish you’ve never attended is a vital and necessary practice for establishing Pan-Orthodox unity in this country.  Some of us are fortunate enough to live in an area with several parishes in close vicinity (where I live, there are three within five minutes’ walk of each other).  Others have to drive several hours to the nearest parish.  Yet those of us who travel should take advantage of the wealth of culture available to us as American Orthodox Christians: the spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity’s first thousand years, preserved in its fullness in the United States (of all places).  Route 66 has become, in a sense, a new Mediterranean Sea: cross over it, and you will find a dozen different cultures that share your same Christian faith.

I wanted to offer in this post some suggestions for travelers by land, sea, and air, who want to attend church in an unfamiliar place, as well as some “flip side” comments for parishes that want to better welcome visitors:

1) Plan your trip around the Church calendar.  As outlandish an idea as this may be in our fast-paced world, the best way to experience Orthodoxy around the country is to think ahead about when you will be where.  Give yourself time on Sundays and major feast days to put God first, and afterward catch your plane.  THE FLIP SIDE: Kudos to parish websites featuring an online calendar such as the one from Orthodox Web Solutions, making it much easier to plan around worship service times.

2) Google it.  Even with some of the excellent parish databases being put together online, Google Maps is still the best place to find a parish location and website.  There are two potential pitfalls to this method.  One, even parish websites with up-to-date service time information and calendars are often incorrect.  Unless you have a copy of the latest bulletin, your best bet when attending for the first time is to give them a call and ask the time of the service you would like to attend.  Two, don’t accidentally go to a schismatic or “poser” Orthodox parish.  A list of these groups was compiled once; I’m not sure how up-to-date it is anymore.  THE FLIP SIDE: Priests and parish administrators, remember that your website is often the “first impression” you give to inquirers and visitors.  It deserves some attention.  Ask tech-savvy volunteers from your congregation to help maintain it.

3) Find a service book and follow along.  Differing translations, hymns, and tones can sometimes make it difficult to follow along (the ACOB-USA “Committee on Liturgy” is ostensibly working to remedy this as part of American Orthodox unity).  Pick up a service book!  They’re not always easy to find.  Check the back, near the candles, or under the pews.  If you have a non-Orthodox visitor with you, encourage them to do the same.  We often forget how disorienting the worship of the Christian orient can be to the uninitiated.  THE FLIP SIDE: All parishes, even those discouraging congregational singing, should offer texts for parishioners to follow along.  Americans like to know what’s going on; if you want them to come back, help them feel like they were able to understand and participate.

4) Stay for the after-party.  Some of my best experiences visiting parishes have been at the ubiquitous “Orthodox coffee hour.”  Good food, good coffee, and making plenty of “small world” connections?what’s not to like?  THE FLIP SIDE: I love it when, after the service, the priest welcomes all the visitors and invites them to stay and fellowship.  I especially love it when parishioners come up to introduce themselves to me.  Simple acts like this are very meaningful.  “I was hungry, and you fed me (delicious baklava).”

5) E-mail encouragement.  Priests don’t get ordained for all the pats on the back, but an encouraging word can make a lifetime of service feel worthwhile.  If your visit to a parish brings you closer to God, e-mail the priest and say thank you.  They will really appreciate it.  THE FLIP SIDE: Thank you, all the priests out there.  Your faithful service has meant so much.

New Author on Red River Orthodox

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Andrew Jacob Cuff, and I am a PhD student in church history at The Catholic University of America.  I have been a reader and one-time guest author here at Red River Orthodox since its inception, and Father Oliver has recently invited me to become a regular author.  I will be honored to contribute a few occasional posts in the upcoming months during the hiatus Fr. Oliver mentioned in the last post.  I hope to enjoy many stimulating conversations with you all!

The Relative Silence Here

This is just a very quick post to apologize to readers for the long delays between posts and to inform readers that I am taking an indefinite leave of absence from blogging.  Recently, I became a full time chaplain.  That leaves less time for blogging and what time I do have, I really need to dedicate to finishing my book on iconography and ethics.  That should come first.  It’s not that I don’t think this blog has a role.  I think it does, and I do I hope to return to discussing Contructions of the West, but just not yet.  True, something big might happen that will inspire a post here but excepting that, I need to stay focused.  Stay tuned and hopefully I’ll get back at this down the road.

Newsweek and (Anti-)Religious Ignorance

Recently, an article in Newsweek has been making some waves.  Whether intended to be “controversial” or “myth debunking,” the reality is it was ignorance revealing (of the author and Newsweek itself).  Since I have not yet even found the time to start taking us through the chapters of Orthodox Constructions, as I said I’d do, I certainly wasn’t about to try to find time to offer a rebuttal.  Thankfully, Fr. Lawrence Farley has done just that.  Already, a shorter version of this rebuttal has been run online.  Here at Red River Orthodoxy, we are pleased to present a fuller version.  His response is worth reading because it is a reminder that the real problem with the Newsweek piece is not the culture wars but biblical literacy, church history awareness, and a willingness to perform honest scholarship (whatever one’s position on a given issue):

Fr. LF Responds to Newsweek Magazine

Orthodox Converts Book Review

I hope to get into the book Orthodox Constructions soon.  For now, though, I thought I’d share a recent review of Turning to Tradition.  If you haven’t yet read this book, give this review a read and consider doing so:


Minimum Reading List Post 2: Review of Orthodox Constructions of the West

For this reading list series I turn my attention to a book that all Orthodox should read.  Just as it should be required by Orthodox seminarians and clergy to be informed about Anselm (not the caricature of him too easily found in popular Orthodox writings), so this book should be required reading.  Frankly, it should probably be required of catechumens too but I realize that might be too hard a sell.  For now, I simply provide a book review I wrote: Orth Constructions of West.  This review appeared in Theologia 85 (2014).  I will discuss individual chapters in future posts.

The Minimum Reading List, Post 1: Anselm of Canterbury

Adam DeVille, one of our bloggers here at Red River Orthodoxy, maintains a most esteemed site devoted to books on Eastern Christianities called  His site is a huge resource that should be thoroughly reviewed by anyone who is interested in Eastern Christianity and especially anyone who desires to write popular level writings, whether in print, online, or both.

I raise this point for two reasons:  1) books we are about to discuss here on RRO may sometimes be found there, though some books are not and at times, this reading list will cite articles rather than books but regardless, we recommend reading Adam’s blog in addition to this one and 2) we are not seeking to replace, in any way, shape or form, what he is doing there.  He’s done all of us a great service and continues to do so.

What I wish to begin now, however, is looking at that book list that I think we Orthodox should read.  Indeed, if I were at a seminary (and no, don’t worry, I don’t ever foresee one of our seminaries desiring to hire me–let your beating hears be still!), I would do what I could to make these books required reading.  Why?  Because I think we Orthodox need more informed perspectives on both our own theologies as well as the theologies of those around us.  This is true whether we are “cradle” or “convert.”  This is true whether we are Orthodox or Eastern Catholic.  This is true, because some of the stuff we author is, well, not as nuanced and informed as it could be.  I also think lacking subtlety and information fosters the anti-Western aspect of “Orthodoxy.”

So, here in post one of this reading list, I thought I would take head on, one of the boogeymen that so scares, intimidates, frustrates, perplexes, and/or angers many an Orthodox–Anselm of Canterbury.  If you are Orthodox, you might better know him as Anselm-who-proferred-a-heretical-tyranical-soteriology (view of salvation).  Or perhaps he’s better known as Anselm-whom-we-love-to-hate.  Perhaps you just reduce it to “heretic.”  However, you look at him, Orthodox have been using him as a foil by which to describe their own Orthodoxy, especially since the twentieth century.

So, what are some things that Orthodox have claimed about Anselm?  Well, Fr. Symeon Rodger could hardly hold himself back in a 1989 GOTR article, wherein he claimed to find numerous problems.  One was an alleged Nestorianism within Anselm’s Christology, as expressed in Cur Deus Homo.  On this score, one is better off reading my article on Anselm, published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quaterly back in 2008.  I’ve included the file here: AnselmArticleSVS. For some odd reason, an editor mistyped my name as “Oliver J. Herbel,” but it’s I who wrote the piece.  What I argued was we need to take a look at De Incarnatione Verbi, an earlier work.  If one does that, and then sees how that lies behind Why the God-Man (Cur Deus Homo) one realizes Anselm was not some 11th century Neo-Nestorian.

Another charge Fr. Symeon Rodger brought against Anselm, however, was that of a juridical soteriology that is out of place within Christianity.  This seems to be the charge Orthodox are most likely to level at the venerable monk-bishop.  Frederica Matthewes-Green has hit on Anselm at least twice: here and here.  According to her, sin was viewed in one way until Anselm came along and said sin was a debt that had to be paid and only Jesus could pay the bill and she noted this was in opposition to a view that saw God the Father as lovingly not letting us go such that “Orthodox have a completely different understanding of Christ’s Saving work.”  God is this giant dishonored man who must be satisfied–even to the point that “there is no Devil.”  At least, that’s the picture of Anselm’s theology she leaves us.  An even simpler overview is given by Timothy Copple in his advice to converts and those looking into Orthodoxy.  Orthodox Wiki has an article dedicated to showing how different the East and West are in which Anselm is mentioned as a seminal figure in the development of atonement and substitutionary theory (away from earlier Patristic models):  Additionally, one might see the post and discussion on Justice over at Glory to God for All Things.  There, Anselm is presented as speaking of an “infinite” offense against God and comments complain about the aspect of God being “owed.”  Moreover, Eric Jobe even pointed out that a guest author here on RRO (David O’Neal) had reservations about atonement.

I would strongly recommend a couple readings and from Adam’s site we can learn a bit more as well.  For starters, I’d recommend an article by David Bentley Hart: A Debt Exceeding Every Debt.  If you read my article, you’ll notice this is where I had pointed the reader on this question.  Hart’s article points out some problems with the Anselmian caricature, even noting Vladimir Lossky’s guilt in this anti-Anselmian slug-fest that we Eastern Christians like to engage in.  Indeed, one of Hart’s strengths is taking on the notion that Anselm is all about punitive penance.

In addition to these two articles (by myself and Hart), a most important book, one that can truly help when assessing Anselm’s “juridical” soteriology is Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by R.W. Southern.  All Orthodox (especially) and even Eastern Catholics would do themselves well to read this.  They would become much more informed about who Anselm was, what his contexts were, and what his arguments were.  Anselm was a complex thinker responding to real issues of his day and Southern gets at that well.  To note just a few things that might help us all be more informed and therefore avoid the temptation to repeat ignorant claims, Southern covers the relationship between freedom and obedience in Anselm quite well on pages 167-74.  He also noted, when discussing Why the God-Man, that “freedom of choice between Good and Evil is servitude in Anselm’s system; inability to sin is perfect freedom, to be sought in this life but attained only in Heaven” (219).  Eastern Orthodox should appreciate this.  Sounds just a little like St. Maximus the Confessor, no?  The mere fact of ping-ponging between Good and Evil is, itself, a result of the fall.

His discussion of “honor” is likewise important.  “Something more than ‘honour’ in this general sense is required if Anselm’s language is to be intelligible.  . . . This background, which sets Anselm as far apart from Patristic as from modern, or even later medieval thought, is the complex of feudal relationships.  In the language of feudal tenure a man’s honour was his estate” (225, emphasis in the original).  In other words, God’s honor is the universe correctly ordered around him and worshiping him and living in harmony with him.  So, when the fall occurs, humanity acts in rebellion and God must assert his honor, not in response to some sort of injury, but in order to re-establish the harmony, order and beauty (yes, beauty is an important term for Anselm) of the created cosmos.  “And so the whole sevitium debitum of the universe is re-established, and God’s ‘honour’ in its full extent is displayed in the restored order and beauty of the whole” (226).  Ironically, those who see Anselm’s God as some giant tyrant demanding a payment have failed to recognize the feudal imagery or analogy at play.  Now, it is true that Anselm did not believe that the Devil could claim any justice against God but this is because Anselm saw that as a diminution of God’s divine majesty.  The harmony is disrupted by the fall.  The fall does not mean the Devil has a claim (on us) against God.  Likewise, the beauty of the universe is the reason God could not simply just say “yeah, sure, I forgive you, no harm done.”  The beauty had to be restored.  Humanity had to be brought back into a position of free submission toward God.  Here feudalism helped Anselm once again.  For by likening redemption to the act of a king who accepts the service of one on behalf of the others (who are guilty), he expresses the Christian faith in a manner that fit his context.  For all who would present themselves to the king and accept what the one innocent man did would be brought back into a right relationship with the king.  In fact, during a time in which intense penances and alms were seen by many as the only means of justifying oneself before God, Anselm actually articulated a way of looking at salvation that was less penance focused.

Anselm does present a unique take on things, by using the feudal imagery of his time.  That much, Orthodox Christians seem to have gotten right, but the subsequent conclusion, that feudalism itself was the driving force, rather than a means of connecting with his context, and that Anselm is to be blamed for a view of God as an angry tyrant needing payment or that Anselm created a view of salvation “completely different” from Eastern Christian or earlier Christian views goes too far–way too far, actually.  What Anselm is most concerned with is responding to those (primarily Jews, actually) who asked why the incarnation was necessary and in answering that, Anselm fixated not on tyranny but beauty and utilized feudalism as an analogy to show how this is so.  All analogies break down, of course, but if we’re intellectually honest, we would conclude that the “honor” system Anselm presented was one that looked less like the Klingons of Star Trek and more like the kind of harmony and beauty an artist intends on a canvas or, to stick with that feudal system, the kind of harmony and beauty that will exist after the Second Coming when all will be rightly worshiping God as our Loving Creator.

In closing, I would like to point us, as well, to two books Adam mentions on his site.  Once one has read the two articles and books mentioned (Southern’s and the two by Ward on Adam’s site), then I think the Orthodox reader should move on to read Anselm.  Truly, there is much to appreciate there–monasticism, church-state relations, Christian apologetics, the combination of beauty, prayer, and reason.  All of these themes, if properly understood, would actually reveal to us an Anselm with whom we have more in common than we might have dared thought, but getting there will require a willingness to see Orthodoxy and Orthodox soteriology as something that can be defined without a “necessary” anti-Anselmian polemic attached thereto.

Clarifying Caricatures

It seems my last post has caused quite a stir, from some internet chatter pro and con to an active comment thread to at least one email thread wherein it became open season on me for a while. In light of all this, I find Fr. Stephen Freeman’s comments here on RRO to be the ones most useful to respond to. The email thread I’ll completely ignore for now. You know who are 😉

I think some clarifications might help underscore what is and is not at issue. In order to do this, first and foremost, I am thankful to Fr. SF for being willing to comment on this recent post of mine. Such can, I hope, be the beginning of fruitful dialogue and exchange rather than the beginnings of spite and vice.

With regard to his comments, I’d like to clarify a few things:

1) I never once questioned his credentials. I’m not sure why he felt obligated to lay claim to “serious work” done with the blessing of hierarchs and his book. Indeed, I would further note that the book was published by Conciliar Press and that he studied at Duke, earning a terminal masters rather than completing the doctorate. I’m not sure how mentioning that helps us in this exchange, but the key line might be when he said, ” I have generally not been charged with being ignorant, uneducated or uninformed.” For the record, I never accused him of such. Though I admit I am ignorant of the extent to which he is engaged with the Orthodox and non-Orthodox theological academy, I did not make such a statement. I don’t know how he read that into my post and I hope no one else did either. RRO is not about “whose CV is bigger.” It’s about Eastern Christianities engaging the West (in a myriad of ways).

2) He is concerned I misunderstood him and made a straw man. To the first, I concede an extent of misunderstanding but that in itself does not create a straw man. It creates a miscommunication. There is a difference.

3) What did I misunderstand? I thought (honestly) that he meant to reduce American Christianity to a particular version of Evangelical Christianity, one that I wasn’t so sure represented even all Evangelicals and Baptists.  I also think I missed a bit of the way he was opposing Schmemann to popular level evangelicalism.  The Baptists I’ve engaged would encourage reading the likes of Dallas Willard (who critiques “once saved always saved” quite harshly) as well as Russell Moore and Al Mohler.  The ethical implications are important to them and so relationships between believers as well as believers and creation are changed by Christ’s redemptive work.  I can see better now what Fr. SF was wanting to articulate even while there remain points of legitimate disagreement.

4) Therefore, I concede that in his comments, he was simply responding to a particular sub-set of American Christianity in that particular post and doing so by utilizing Schmemann’s sacramental (“ontological”) view.  For this reason alone, I am thankful Fr SF commented here.

5) It is important to keep in mind that in my original blog post I was not defending Evangelicals specifically, nor specifically the once saved always saved types (as indeed, I noted they seemed to be the only types who would hold to the kind of views he seemed to me to be reducing all non-Orthodox too).  Nor was I attacking certain bloggers specifically, even while giving a couple recent examples, but was rather aiming at the common Orthodox practice of presenting Orthodoxy in polemical terms – and it always being some one or another Western expression of Christianity that becomes the target of what Orthodoxy *is not* so as to affirm what Orthodoxy *is*. My point was simply – Why not affirm what Orthodoxy is without trotting out some impoverished Western version of Christianity that Orthodoxy *is not*?

6) The risk in this more polemical approach is twofold: it risks mischaracterizing the named impoverished version of Christianity, and it risks mischaracterizing Orthodoxy itself by means of introducing an unnecessary and possibly untruthful false dichotomy.

7) Connecting Fr SF with other Orthodox bloggers who make extended use of such a polemical approach is warranted, based on a reading of his blog and his own words describing what is at the foundation of his own thought. So, from:

“My own belief is that the Fathers see something to which we are largely blind – that our historicized view of the world is extremely limiting and skews everything in our minds. One way that I have pressed this question has been to ask, “If the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, what kind of world do we live in?” What is unique in this question is my assumption that it tells us something about how the world is.

This is a key point in the sacramental teaching of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He carefully critiqued the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the sacraments as positing an “addition” to reality as we know it, whereas, he contended, in Orthodoxy, sacraments reveal something that is always true of reality. He said famously, “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are.”

This has been perhaps the most foundational understanding of my Orthodox life and undergirds all of the writing that I have done.”

Note that last sentence… In his own words, the single most foundational understanding that he has of Orthodoxy is Schmemann’s assertion about Orthodox sacramental understanding, which is intrinsically tied to his view of Orthodox soteriology. Note also, though, that when explaining what’s been “the most foundational understanding of my Orthodox life and undergirds all of the writing that I have done” he is referencing what is framed as a criticism of “the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the sacraments”. With this in mind, if the very “foundation” upon which he builds is a “criticism” of what is believed to be “the traditional Roman Catholic approach,” then isn’t this foundation itself intrinsically polemical? There is, here, a mode for describing Orthodoxy that is inherently contra-West.

Here are a couple of examples of polemicizing specifically against “the West” categorically:

8) Finally, I think this is the beginning of a good self-examination for Orthodox. Fr. SF raised the work of Florovsky and the likes of Nietzsche. I hope to return to this angle at some point–in fact, plan to, since this is important and will help readers really get into core issues at play here. Fr. SF and I may disagree on the extent to which a foil is necessary to present Orthodoxy but that is precisely why this discussion needs to be had. I think there is a better way, a way that Fr SF does get at, when he expresses the positive aspects of Orthodox spirituality and theology. It is my hope to see more of this from Orthodox and less of needing to contradict the other, for that “need” often actually masks passions that are better left below deck rather than manning the helm.