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.
This book is the thirtieth volume in the Theology and Life Series published by The
Liturgical Press, St. Johns 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 Ialong with several other conservative
Orthodox writerscertainly 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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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
cumenical Patriarch exercises no singular authority in administering any of the
Churchs 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
cumenical 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 Churchs Mysteries. Anything which compromises this equality by a
misinterpretation of Church order and protocol must be assiduously avoided as virtually
poisonous to the Churchs 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 Schmemanns 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
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VIII, No. 3, p. unknown.