Book Review: The Teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church

For the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia

Author unknown

The Synod of Bishops has delegated me to prepare a review of the book by the priest Michael Azkoul with the pretentious title The Teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church.

This book was published in an attractive format, with a quality binding, by the Dormition Skete in Colorado, and with the blessing of the Rt. Rev. Alypy, Bishop of Cleveland. There can be no doubt that a book not only holding such a title, but also having contents corresponding to it, would be a great boon to Americans who do not know Russian or Greek. And, in fact, the book does contain many valuable quotations from Patristic literature. This is especially true in chapters 3, 4, and 5, where the author speaks concerning the Creation of the world, the Economy of Old Israel, and of the Lord Jesus Christ. The quotations from the Fathers are very lengthy—the author’s explanations of them are not always too good, but all this is quite acceptable. The situation, however, is quite different in the first two chapters, as well as in the special Appendix devoted to the Blessed Augustine.

In the first chapter, entitled Introduction, the subheadings themselves cause some amazement: (1) The Apostolic Tradition, (2) Dogma, (3) The Western Heterodox, (4) Scriptures, (5) Kerygma, (6) Episcopacy, (7) The Vincentian Canon, (8) The Fathers, (9) Gnosis, (10) Modern Reason, (11) The Return to Tradition.

One is at a loss to find any logical sequence in these various sections, which are completely heterogeneous in meaning and content, as can be seen from the headings alone—why should “The Western Heterodox” appear between “Dogma” and “Scriptures”? In these chapters the non-specialist reader could be rather confused when, for example, the author writes in a deriding, polemical tone that “The Church is also obliged to accept Clement of Alexandria, Origen’s teacher, as Her spokesman, although She has never accepted his authority” (p. 22). It is also very strange to read the words of an educated clergyman who says that the Christian who “wishes to penetrate ‘deeply’ into the spiritual realm ... must ordinarily embrace the philosophy of askesis—the monastic way” (p. 26). Is one to conclude from this that only monks are saved? Note also that in his Glossary of Terms “askesis” is defined first of all as “the life of the monk.”

In his fondness for various heretical teachings, which is evident throughout his book, the author could easily have found a source for such a heresy also. One also meets up with sentences that are quite absurd in their grammatical structure. For example, “With the acceleration of secularism in the 20th century, so the acceleration of rationalism in ‘Greek theology’” (p. 28). It is unclear what the author wishes to say. He often confuses the reader with inappropriate and premature haranguing against heretics. Thus, for example, in the 5th chapter he opens the 3rd section under the heading “The Second Adam” with the following phrases: “Christ is the Saviour, but how does He save us? Nowhere in the Scriptures or the Fathers is salvation accomplished, as some Protestant sects say, by ‘faith alone,’ without any human effort.” Here, as in many other places, he speaks of heretical teachings before explaining the correct teaching of the Church. We cannot approve of such a method.

Perhaps the weakest chapter in all this work is the 2nd, in which he speaks of God, “First, because [God] has revealed very little about His inner life.” And “Second, because those Orthodox raised in the heterodox West or in countries under its intellectual influence have acquired ideas which are basically wrong and need to be unlearned.” These two aspects are what the author wishes to write this whole chapter about. Not surprisingly, the result is nonsense when one tries to talk of two such incompatible themes as the Holy Trinity and some puzzling Orthodox who grew up in the West, and no one knows who needs it. Approaching this theme, the author in his bizarre train of thought first tries to define who is a theologian. Having first stated the scarcely-novel idea that “St. Gregory the Theologian tells us that the study of theology is a privilege and a (sic) awful responsibility,” the author continues immediately with “It is not a subject for academic debate, nor a sport, nor should it be part of a casual after-dinner conversation” (p. 32). It is hardly likely that St. Gregory the Theologian spoke thus of theology.

Further on in this chapter, the author speaks much of various Roman Catholic and Protestant “theologians,” mentioning also Judaism, Islam, and paganism. He denounces them all, but says nothing positive of his own.

The author sometimes seems to experience great difficulties with language: e.g., the word “oikonomia” can indeed be translated by the word “dispensation,” but in speaking of the activity of God, as on page 35 for example, such a translation is absolutely absurd.

Many correctly-expressed thoughts lose their strength by being left without substantiation. That God speaks in the plural, without indicating Himself plus the angels, is perfectly right. But that Moses could never have entertained such a thought (p. 41) is something that would have to be proven.

On page 88 the author discusses the relationship of the individual’s body and soul and shows that the Church rejects such ideas as reincarnation. Here he certainly treats of important matters, but if one is to touch upon them, they should be spoken of in detail, not, as it were, in passing.

As we have already said, the author refers too often and indiscriminately to all manner of heretics, actually giving more attention to them than to Orthodox teaching. Unfortunately one gets the idea from his statements that he does not have too clear a picture even of historical heresies, or else deliberately mixes them up. For example, he says of the Monophysites: “The Lord, said the heresiarch Eutyches the priest of Constantinople (5th c.), has one (monos) nature (physis) and, as some of his supporters will say, one will (mono-thelesis). He has only a divine Nature (and Will)” (p. 179). And in the glossary of difficult terms he defines Monophysitism: “The christological heresy that in Christ there is only one nature (physis) and one will or energy (Monotheletism).” One ought not to confuse two completely different heresies, even if there are some points of contact between them.

It is hard to put up with all these shortcomings. But to them is added yet a further blemish—a perfectly rabid hatred of the blessed Augustine. The blessed Augustine is mentioned not only in a special appendix devoted entirely to him, but also several times in each chapter. Each time, he is dubbed “the greatest heresiarch” (p. 54) or the like. Thus it would sometimes seem the author really wanted to write a book on the blessed Augustine. To him he ascribes all the ills and misfortunes that arose in the West, and, of course, among Orthodox who were influenced by the West. Judging by this book, I am afraid that poor Fr. Michael Azkoul is himself the first victim of such Western influence! If he stood on purely Orthodox foundations, he would not express himself with such hatred. On the last page (206), he blames the blessed Augustine for Calvinism. This shows us the dishonesty of the author’s approach. We all know the weaknesses in the writings of the blessed Augustine. But the Church never passed judgement on him for this, especially as he constantly emphasized that he was expressing his personal opinion and did not wish to impose it on others. Many of his writings he reworked and rewrote before the end of his life.

We can find equally weak points in the writings of almost all the Holy fathers, but we are not about to cross out the name of St. Basil the Great from among the saints because he made—from our point of view—incorrect expressions about the Holy Trinity, which are due partly to his caution in polemic with heretics and schismatics and partly to the imperfect theological thought of his time. If the author refers to the lack of a service to St. Augustine, he should look further and seek the reasons in something one might call Greek chauvinism. Must we really give up celebrating the Presanctified Liturgy because the Greeks did not trouble to compose a service in honor of St. Gregory the Dialogist?

In the Russian Church it is customary to call Augustine of Hippo “the blessed.” Concerning his significance and veneration, the late priestmonk Seraphim (of Platina) wrote a splendid and truly Orthodox book. With his book one can fully agree.

Translated from the Russian text as published in Church Life, No. 11 12, November/December 1986, the official organ of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Translated from the Russian by Archpriest John R. Shaw.