Book Review

Payton, James R., Jr. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition.

Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007. Reviewed by Donald Fairbairn.

This book does not attempt to evaluate or critique Orthodoxy, but simply aims to help Western evangelicals learn from the Eastern Church. Payton concentrates on Orthodox theology and practice, and each chapter describes the major differences between East and West on the issue at hand and concludes with several specific lessons that Payton believes Westerners can learn from Eastern Orthodoxy.

Payton’s significant research in Eastern sources and his long-term personal interaction with Orthodox leaders give his book a wealth of helpful insight. For example, Payton’s historical sketch (chap. 1) includes an outstanding short summary of the differences between the Greek and Latin mindsets that helped to foster diverging Eastern and Western Christian traditions. In his discussion of grace (chap. 9), he notes the Western focus on what grace does vs. the Eastern focus on what grace is, and this distinction brilliantly encapsulates the differences between Eastern and Western theology. Similarly, Payton helps the reader to understand differences in Eastern and Western debates about religious art when he points out (chap. 11) that what the Medieval West affirmed (and thus what the Reformers criticized) was only a small part of the Eastern Church’s much more comprehensive theology of the visual. Payton also offers very helpful descriptions of Orthodox practices, perhaps the best of which is his extensive analysis of the content and the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer (chap. 13).

However, when one attempts to help Western evangelicals learn from Orthodoxy, there seem to be two major ways in which one is prone to distortions. First, in an effort to make clear distinctions between evangelicalism and Orthodoxy, one might tend to exaggerate the differences in order to give Westerners clear lessons to learn from the East, lessons they allegedly could not learn from Western theology. From time to time, Payton seems to fall into this trap. For example, when he asserts that Orthodoxy can help the West explain the good that unbelievers do (p. 117) through its insistence that fallen humanity remains God’s handiwork, he is affirming nothing but what Western theologians also affirm. Almost all serious theologians admit that something of the original goodness remains even in fallen human beings. What Payton claims is a lesson the West needs to learn from the East is actually a lesson that popular Christianity needs to learn from mature theology, whether Eastern or Western.

A second pitfall that Payton falls into is the reverse of the first one. In places where Orthodoxy is particularly problematic, he tends to minimize the differences between East and West, to put the best possible spin on an Eastern teaching that in fact is rarely so acceptable. For example, in his discussion of the fall, Payton asserts that the Orthodox emphases are legitimate interpretations of the biblical texts (p. 108), an assertion that minimizes the chasm that separates Eastern and Western understandings of this issue. Some of the differences (for example, the Western view of the fall as guilt vs. the Eastern view of the fall as mortality) are indeed differences of emphasis that may be complementary, but others (such as the Western assertion that the serpent tempted Eve with something that could not be gained at all, vs. the Eastern claim that he tempted her with a shortcut to a goal that she should reach in another way) are virtual contradictions. Here Payton seems to gloss over an aspect of Orthodox theology that most evangelicals would regard as very problematic; he depicts Orthodoxy as closer to evangelical faith than it actually is.

Both the places where Payton exaggerates East-West differences and the places where he minimizes them are the unintended consequences of his purpose to let Orthodoxy teach us, without also seeking to critique Orthodoxy from a Western perspective. The reader thus needs to be alert to the places when Payton is unable to avoid these natural pitfalls. Despite these problems, I believe Payton’s work makes a very helpful contribution to the West’s understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy and to the crucial task of understanding our faith more comprehensively. This book is a welcome addition to the growing body of Protestant literature interacting with Eastern Orthodoxy. F

Donald Fairbairn is professor of historical theology, Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, South Carolina. He also teaches part-time at Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium, working primarily with students from Eastern Europe.