"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity (6)

In his longstanding classic introduction to Orthodoxy, The Orthodox Church,
Kallistos Ware, whom it will be my joy at long last finally to meet in Washington in June at the Orientale Lumen Conference, offers a list of authoritative texts for Eastern Christianity. These "chief doctrinal texts," as he calls them (sometimes referred to as "symbolical books") are overwhelmingly (11 out of 13) products of post-schism, and especially post-Reformation polemics.

By contrast, the list of authoritative texts offered in the appendix to John McGuckin, ed.,  The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, on which I have commented previously, confines itself to the first eight centuries.This lengthy appendix (171pp.) contains the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, the statements of faith of the remaining five ecumenical councils properly so called, the famous five theological orations of St. Gregory the Theologian, and excerpts from St. John of Damascus' brilliant synthesis, "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith."

In his very winsome preface to these documents, McGuckin notes that the appendix does not by any means include all authoritative documents for Orthodoxy, but that he wanted to get away from more apologetical or polemical literature, especially that generated in the 17-19th centuries. This list is but a "representative sample" whose purpose is to offer "the main historical line of 'dogmatic' literature" (648). None of these, McGuckin rightly insists, are the exclusive property of Orthodoxy: "anyone interested in understanding the foundations of the Christian Church ought to be familiar with this material" (650). Most of this material is available elsewhere (especially through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), but not all of it is extant in good, modern English, and so McGuckin has "thoroughly modernized all of them" in order that "their (very) elegant Greek" might shine through.

McGuckin includes a helpful though very brief comment about the nature of the rhetoric in these documents: they are all, he says, full-blooded dogmatic statements that offer "ancient teaching (didache)...with a rhetorical thump on the table" (650). That is all to the good. We live in an age parched for straight-talk and dying under various politically correct euphemisms. (When the Catechism of the Catholic Church first appeared in 1992 it was a run-away best-seller because people want the straight goods. In the Roman Church since the 1970s, catechesis has so often been an exercise in shiftless dissembling that many people today are clueless about their faith.)

Still, as lovely as the translations are, and indisputably important as the documents may be, I do wonder if this appendix was the most judicious use of space in the encyclopedia when most of these texts are available elsewhere. I ask that because, for all its myriad wonderful riches, there are a number of surprising lacunae in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I will return to these later.

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