For the past couple of weeks, I've been posting about James Payton's Light from the Christian East. On Facebook & Twitter as well as a few comments posted on this blog, there have been some strong reactions to Eastern Orthodoxy's tenets and whether they can really be called Christian. I still think Payton's book is a good starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about Orthodoxy or beginning to work in a predominant Orthodox culture. The strength of Payton’s approach is his historical perspective, something that is often lost in many interfaith conversation. He does a good job in explaining several of the key differences between the diverging perspectives that generated as the East and the West (pardon the pun) went their own ways. This historical lens is necessary for the Eastern and Western missiological dialogue.
However, I also admit that Payton also exhibits several weaknesses in my opinion. Payton arguably places too much emphasis on the differences between Eastern and Western theologies. It is true that the historical contexts of each have led to a diversification in development, but he seems to embellish them to make his point. In a surprisingly naive way, he seems to stereotype all of Eastern Orthodoxy with the same beliefs, not allowing for varying views within the faith. He does the same with Western Protestantism. At times he makes the Eastern Church affirm the same things that the
also affirms, but
he identifies them as unique stances. In truth, there are simply some theological points that bind us together and other points that differentiate us. Western
I also disagree with Payton’s presumption that Eastern Orthodoxy encompasses all of Eastern Christianity. In doing so, I believe Payton fails to take into account the various other non-Orthodox Christian movements that have sprung up throughout history in Eastern Europe as well as the non-Orthodox divisions out of the officially sanctioned church. Albeit the numbers are significantly smaller than Protestants of Western Christianity, there have been some other Christian groups that exist besides Orthodoxy. It seems the very reason why the Protestant movement is included with the Roman Catholic Church in Western Christianity should give warrant to include the sectarian groups of the East. Having spent 13 years with evangelicals from the East gives me pause to simply whitewash the Eastern church as being stereotyped.
Yet another significant missiological weakness is his blind insistence that both Eastern and Western Christian perspectives are equally valid. Without a biblical point of reference, he asserts that the “Orthodox approaches are legitimate interpretations of biblical revelation” (108). This seems to contradict the historical evidence that the two views are polarized on many points. Where there are areas for dialogue, a complete merging of the two without regard for theology is ecclesiologically dangerous at best and a negation of theology at worst. Or have we truly come to the point where every point of view is equally valid?
Regardless of these weaknesses, Payton’s book is definitely useful as an introduction to the Eastern Church and for understanding its doctrines and practices. Payton argues that Orthodoxy can help the West overcome its own sabotaging wording in the creation-evolution debate. He believes it can deepen our recognition of the distance between God and his creation. He also believes that Orthodox can help make us aware of our own cultural mandate by appreciating creation’s holistic purpose for communion with God. The unique value of the text is how Payton ties human history to Christian theology. As such it is a worthy read with more than just academic significance.