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Book Review: Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology

Reviewed by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos of Etna

Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology. By Constantine Tsirpanlis. Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991. Pp. 214 + Appendices, Notes, and Indices. $16.95, paper.

This book is the thirtieth volume in the Theology and Life Series published by The Liturgical Press, St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.

I would have thought it unlikely that I would reviewing a book of this kind in a positive way. A one-volume introduction to the Eastern Fathers to Orthodox theology in general is an ambitious, if not foolhardy, task. The best that one can usually expect from such projects is the kind of summary statement found in the well known introductory book on Orthodoxy by Bishop Kallistos (Ware), The Orthodox Church, a useful but incomplete summary compromised by an historical introduction much open to dispute. Yet, I must conclude that Dr. Tsirpanlis has produced a volume which offers a positive and valuable summary of the teachings of the Greek Fathers and a good synopsis of a number of profound theological issues. His book is neither trite nor simplistic, but gives one a clear, programmed footing in Patristics and Orthodox doctrine.

I should say parenthetically, here, that Professor Tsirpanlis’ works are too often ignored in the standard compendia of Orthodox Patristic books, despite the fact that he is a very competent scholar of international renown and was a valued student of the late Father Georges Florovsky. Unfortunately, some of his books, despite his absolute fluency in English (he is a native Greek speaker), have been poorly edited, making them hard to use. His association with the Unification Theological Seminary in Barr, NY, has also cast a shadow of suspicion over his work. While I—along with several other conservative Orthodox writers—certainly do not endorse such an association and may differ with him on various ecclesiological issues, this should have nothing whatever to do with an objective evaluation of his important and often brilliant works. His present book deserves such objective treatment.

Professor Tsirpanlis introduces his book with an essay on Patristics which is a singularly brilliant summary of the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the dogmas and the Patristic consensus which jointly form her theology. His overall comments are consistent with the insights of his mentor, Father Florovsky. While one might take exception to his notion of a "Golden Age" of Patristic writing, Tsirpanlis admittedly points out that these appellations are arbitrary and that, according to Orthodox teach the Patristic Age is always present in the Faith.

The book proper contains five sections devoted to Orthodox teachings on: 1) cosmology (creation, history, angelology and demonology); (2) anthropology and Mariology (the human fall, "original" sin, and the Theotokos as the New Eve); (3) Christology and Soteriology (the Incarnation, the Nature of Christ, Theosis, and the problem of will); (4) pneumatology, the filioque, the Church’s Mysteries, the Saints, and monasticism, and (5) eschaetology (the Kingdom of God, kenosis, and life after death). Especially good are Tsirpanlis’ treatments of human sin, the New Eve, and the Kingdom of God, all adequately set forth with numerous citations and summaries from the Fathers. His excellent treatment of the filioque controversy wisely centers on the arguments of St. Mark of Ephesus at the thwarted union council at Ferrara-Florence.

Study guides are another trend in simplistic scholarship that I intensely dislike. Had I not read Professor Tsirpanlis’ study questions, which follow each section in his book, I would have thought it impossible to approach something so complex as Patristics and Orthodox theology in this way. However, the author has done the difficult. He has provided intelligent, provocative questions for reflection and study that do not compromise the profundity of the Fathers’ teachings.

There are some shortcomings in this book which also warrant attention. First, Professor Tsirpanlis opts to use the Latin word "Sacrament" in discussing the Orthodox Mysteries. Though he no doubt does this to avoid confusing his readers, this imprecise usage often obfuscates the very important differences between a traditional Orthodox understanding of the Church’s Mysteries and Latin Scholastic notions, at least, of the Sacrament. It is untrue, as Tsirpanlis claims, that the preparation of the Holy Myron "is the exclusive privilege of the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople" and that "it is accepted as such by the entire Orthodox Church" (p.112). While it is true that the Great Church played a pivotal role in the life of the Byzantine world and that honor was often shown to Constantinople by the local Churches, the Œcumenical Patriarch exercises no singular authority in administering any of the Church’s Mysteries. Such a notion, though popular in the Church today, is inconsistent with Orthodox ecclesiology and is more appropriately applied to the privileges slowly acquired by the Bishop of Rome in the West.

The "Hermeneia" of the sixth Canon of the Synod of Carthage, in the fifth century, clearly points out that the Byzantine Bishops could have prepared the Holy Myron by themselves ("kat’ heautous"), but out of respect for and obedience to the Great Church assembled to prepare it in Constantinople. (See the Pedalion [Thessaloniki, 1982], p. 467.) In later years, of course, the autocephalous Churches have always prepared their own Myrrh, as in Moscow, for example.

The danger of careless references to the honor shown to the Constantinopolitan Church in early centuries, if not today, is that one can obscure the real meaning of this honor and risk supporting the contemporary, unfortunate, and unfounded trend of identifying, the Œcumenical Patriarch with the Roman Pontiff. The equality of all Bishops is a dogmatic principle of the Orthodox Church, especially with regard, again, to their administration of the Church’s Mysteries. Anything which compromises this equality by a misinterpretation of Church order and protocol must be assiduously avoided as virtually poisonous to the Church’s ethos.

Finally, the section bibliographies concentrate on secondary sources which, with the exception of Father Florovsky, represent a far too Western bent in approaching the Fathers. This is especially true of some of Father Alexander Schmemann’s more trendy works. Several attributions of neo-Platonic influences to various Orthodox beliefs and references to Pseudo-Dionysios are also "Westernisms" of a trendy kind that mar an otherwise fine volume.

The book is very nicely bound and printed. There are some lapses in editorial care and in a few instances (see, for example, p. 95) the printer has badly handled the Greek texts. But these are small problems. This book should be in every library and is an excellent guide, given my suggested precautions, for the beginning student of Orthodox Patristics.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VIII, No. 3[2], p. unknown.