Nassif, Bradley et al. Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. James J. Stamoolis, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004.
Reviewed by Don Fairbairn.
Editor's Note: A longer version of this review will be published in the Westminster Theological Journal.
This commendable book addresses the question of whether Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are compatible, and in the process it exposes the difficulty of undertaking serious dialogue between these two groups. Of the five contributors, only two, Bradley Nassif and Edward Rommen, who argue the "yes" and "maybe" positions from the Orthodox side, seem to this reviewer to have ample theoretical and experiential knowledge of both traditions.
In spite of these difficulties, all five contributors do have something important to say. Nassif lays out persuasively the areas of common ground between Evangelicals and Orthodox, especially in the area of soteriology. Michael Horton identifies some unexpected areas of agreement between Reformed Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy and also articulates Protestantism's most significant criticisms of Orthodoxy: its view of the fall and its denial of the centrality of legal categories in the Bible's depiction of salvation. Father Vladimir Berzonsky calls attention to what may be the most insurmountable barrier separating the two traditions: different understandings of human capacity to cooperate with God in salvation. George Hancock-Stefan's vivid personal reminiscences remind the reader that Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe and in the West may be very different entities. Rommen gives the clearest discussion of what Orthodox-Evangelical "compatibility" might actually mean in fact.
While all the participants make contributions, the most serious theological reflection comes from Horton and Nassif. Horton openly expresses his admiration for many aspects of Eastern theology, but he still charges that Orthodoxy denies Reformed Protestantism's view of regeneration through God's grace and its doctrine of justification. Nassif recognizes the seriousness of these charges, and he goes to some length to show that justification by faith is a vital component of mature Orthodox thought. I doubt Horton or very many other Protestants agree with Nassif on this point, but it is worth mentioning that I myself have heard other Orthodox theologians saying the same thing. Another of Nassif's valuable contributions is his explanation of what he calls an "incarnational Trinitarian" model for understanding salvation. Too often, Evangelicals have glossed over the great realities of the Trinity and the incarnation in order to focus on the application of Christ's work to individual believers. Nassif is correct to call us back to an understanding of salvation that is explicitly tied to our understanding of God as Trinity.
The book deals with many theological and practical issues, but I believe one of the most significant is the issue that it exposes only indirectly: the question of which version of Orthodoxy is normative. The various contributors all discuss the question of what constitutes"true" Evangelicalism, but they do not discuss the diversity of Orthodoxy to any significant degree. Even if Orthodoxy in various parts of the world does have a uniform worship practice (which I readily grant) and a fairly uniform theology (which I grant with a bit more reluctance), one must recognize that the emphases within that theology, and especially the attitudes toward non-Orthodox Christians, vary radically from place to place and person to person. In light of this, discussion of those differences needs to be as much a part of any ecumenical dialogue as discussion of the well-known variations within Evangelicalism. The absence of such discussion from this book must be regarded as a major way in which it is incomplete.
It seems to me that this book has two primary accomplishments. First, it lays out many issues on which Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are not as far apart as we might think. Therefore, we should be able to benefit from the way the other side formulates and expresses Christian faith. Second, the book exposes aspects of theology that are underemphasized by one side or the other, thus giving us further opportunities to be corrected by the other's emphases. For example, it is probably fair to say that the relation between the person of Christ and salvation is under-explored in Evangelical thought, whereas the relation between the fall and salvation is under-appreciated in Orthodox thought. A willingness to learn from the other tradition on these points might bring both groups to a fuller expression of biblical truth. This book makes a valuable contribution toward that laudable aim.
Don Fairbairn, Review of Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, by Bradley Nassif et al., East-West Church & Ministry Report 13 (Spring 2005), 12-13.
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