Book Review: Through Western Eyes by Letham
Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: a Reformed Perspective (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2007). $19.99. Paper.
Western interest in the Eastern Orthodox Church is growing. Some enjoy its experiential liturgical worship; others appreciate its connection to ancient tradition. Reformed Christians might benefit from its distinction between God’s essence and energies. To address and evaluate these interests is the purpose of Robert Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: a Reformed Perspective. Though there are areas of disagreement between Protestant and Eastern theology, Letham argues that there are also areas of agreement, as well as areas of misunderstanding to be overcome (13). He organizes his analysis in three parts: historical summary, theological presentation, and comparative evaluation.
In his historical summary of the Orthodox Church, Letham details its formative ecumenical councils, sketches several biographies of its important Fathers, and briefly discusses its progression from the seventh century to the present. He then presents several aspects of Eastern theology, including icons, Scripture and tradition, sacraments, its position on the Trinity, and its belief concerning salvation. Next, he compares Eastern and Reformed Christianity, describing areas in which the Reformed can learn from the East, points of agreement between them, and issues over which misunderstanding should be remedied, while not withholding critiques of several Eastern doctrines.
There is much to commend in Through Western Eyes. Letham provides a clear, concise, and scholarly summary of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Those interested in further study will find the footnotes, glossary, and bibliography helpful. Also, Letham presents an irenic evaluation of the Eastern church which, while critiquing areas of concern such as its synergistic soteriology and veneration of Mary and the saints, nevertheless finds aspects about it from which the Reformed may learn and concerning which more dialogue can be enjoyed (chap. 11). Furthermore, Letham seeks balanced evaluations of topics, such as his treatment of the different positions of the East and West concerning the Trinity, and particularly the famous controversy over the filioque clause (chap. 9).
Despite these strengths, there are a few areas with which some Reformed might differ. One might be the soft stance Letham takes on the Eastern use of icons (143-62). A second might be his critique that the more forensically minded Reformed need to learn from the East’s understanding of union with Christ, as if they are lacking in this area (273-75). A third might be his critique that the Reformed have not connected theology and piety or the academy and the church enough, as has the East (276-77), dichotomies that are not necessarily true. A fourth area to note might be Letham’s criticism of the Eastern essence-energies distinction, one which some Reformed theologians have found quite helpful (283-84).
These areas of concern notwithstanding, Through Western Eyes is an excellent book which I would recommend for those interested in gaining an introduction to the Eastern Orthodox Church’s history, theologians, and theology, and understanding how to evaluate and interact with its positions.
Reviewed by Brandon Hoffman