Paradigm shifts are rare occurrences that are either the fruit of long-held study or akin to the slamming of one’s head against a kitchen cabinet. The latter is true of Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church. I sat down to read what I assumed would transpire into an interesting theological study of a cousinly faith tradition. What I found, instead, was a book not arguing for one theological point of view, but rather one that assumes the truth of its dictates as from an older, wiser brother to a younger, wayward brother.
In other words, and according to Ware, the East has both tradition and history on its side and is, therefore, the one true church. For a western, post-reformation protestant this is a jarring conclusion. Not only—according to Ware—am I not a member of the one true church, I may not even be a Christian. Ware, the metropolitan bishop of Dioklea and former lecturer at Oxford University, is in no way rude or offensive in his assertions, but rather both honest and heartfelt. He is writing for readers blind to the Orthodox tradition and who are seeking to understand what is oftentimes viewed as a cloistered and mysterious faith tradition, at least in the West. Ware’s book is informative, challenging, and a wonderful point of entry for anyone seeking to discover the Orthodox Church’s rich-faith tradition.
The Orthodox Church is split into two parts: one, history; two, faith and worship. Ware begins by discussing the history of the Orthodox Church. He methodically, though not exhaustively, walks his reader through the Byzantine years, the Islamic years, and the Russian years. He explains the various church councils that resulted in Christianity’s commonly held creeds, and he provides his readers with a short survey of the Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. While the historical sections read as fascinating narratives, the latter sections, which summarize contemporary Orthodox hierarchies, are laborious.
In the second half of his book, Ware tackles both the faith and worship of the Orthodox Church. This includes the Orthodox Church’s position on the schismatic filioque, as well as Ware’s personal outlook in regards to church unity in the future. Far from dry, Ware’s section on faith and worship details, and wonderfully I might add, the ins-and-outs of the Orthodox tradition, including minutiae regarding the liturgy and flow of a typical Sunday service.
Where Ware is challenging is in his insistence that the Orthodox Church is the one true church. While this may be difficult for some readers to stomach, Ware makes a strong argument. The Orthodox Church has both history and tradition on its side. The Orthodox Church has neither “reformed” nor “counter-reformed.” It is unified, or at least strives to be unified far more than its Western counterparts. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with his conclusions, he is right in asserting that the Orthodox Church has best preserved the two-thousand year tradition as it has passed both from and through the apostles, Nicaea, Constantinople, Communism, and into our present age.
In the end, I am not Orthodox. But Ware’s book met the need for which I began reading it. It succinctly informed me about the Orthodox Church. It was accessible—especially for one like me who knew little about the Orthodox Church—and it was challenging. The Orthodox Church resulted in an unexpected paradigm shift. The small and fractured world of Western Protestant Christianity is just that, small and fractured. We neither have a claim to the truth nor a history of embodying the truth. Though we might disagree theologically with Orthodoxy, the West has quite a bit it could learn from its older brother.