on 1 February 2017
Although I am not Eastern Orthodox, I cannot think of a better theology book that I've ever read. And I've read quite a lot of theology, particularly from the Reformed world. This piece is spectacular. It's on another level. It's so hard to read at times that Lossky gives me a headache. But there's soooo much substance here, it's all worth it.
Obviously, it's a book all about the sum and substance of Eastern theology, which Lossky understands as true mysticism. Theology and participating in God by personal experience can never be divided.
Lossky begins by explaining what theology is: it is apophatic, theology by negation (Chapter 1). It is easy to misunderstand this. Basically, apophaticism is simply making a strong assertion that theology is a means to an end. The goal of all theology is to appreciate as fully as possible the completely transcendent God, whom we cannot explain but can most certainly experience. Theology is not merely about cerebral concepts, but is ultimately about contemplation and being transformed into God by grace.
Lossky then launches straight into that ancient subject which was so popular amongst the early Church fathers, that of God's incomprehensible essence (Chapter 2). This is basically all we can ever say about God in an absolute sense: God is unknowable, He is absolutely transcendent. As John of Damascus put it, all we can ever really know about God is that we cannot know God at all, because He is infinite and incomprehensible. Christians commonly think that they really can know God, but that they simply cannot know everything there is to know about Him. The early Church, Vladimir Lossky and ultimately the Bible seem to be against this conception (e.g. 1 Timothy 6:16, John 1:18, Matthew 11:27). The Church today seems to have lost something of this greatly humbling and profound truth.
Notwithstanding, it is not the case that we cannot know anything about God (Chapter 4). We cannot know His essence, but we can most certainly know His energies, or His attributes: His love, grace, power, mercy, justice, truth, etc. God's energies are God - they are God eternally existing in the 'mode' of the outflow of His essence. His eternal energies are therefore not His essence, but they are still truly the eternal God. Moreover, these divine energies we can know fully, by grace. These energies/attributes are what we receive fully in Christ by the Holy Spirit's work. By receiving them we are deified - made God, united to His energies. This is classic Eastern theology. This essence-energies distinction has a long history in the Church, and even some Reformed theologians agree with it (such as Michael Horton and John Calvin).
Lossky then delivers a powerful account of the doctrine of the Trinity (Chapter 3). This he considers to be the pinnacle of all theology. Amongst many other points, this wonderful theologian teaches that the knowledge of the Trinity is that which transcends all other knowledge, and it is here that our closest encounter with God is fulfilled. In addition, the chapter is also highly polemical against the Western view of the Trinity, which Lossky expertly analyses and finds wanting in light of the Church fathers and the whole system of theology. This chapter might have been improved by more appeal to Scripture, such as (for instance) an exposition of John 14:16, 26 and 15:26.
Next the universe and mankind are discussed (Chapters 5 and 6). The chief note here is that all created being was created by God's will specifically for participating in God's nature. The major Eastern and early Church doctrine of theosis - deification - is discussed here as it relates to human persons, and even to creation itself. Human beings in particular have been created to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4, John 17:20-26), to be God's very image and likeness (Ephesians 4:24), through the Incarnation of the Son of God.
What follows is the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word, where Lossky is arguably at his very best (Chapter 7). I've never read anything like it before in my life; certainly, as far as I know, there appears to be nothing of this calibre in Reformed theology. Lossky ransacks the early fathers to a considerable degree here, especially Maximus the Confessor, in order to put forth in full glory the Church's understanding of the Incarnation. In short, Christ's humanity shared such a perfect union with His divine nature that His divinity actually deified His humanity, by this union of the two distinct natures. Therefore, Christ has a deified human nature. Now because Jesus is what we are by nature - human - His Church now participates in His own deified humanity, as much as is possible down here, and fully in the age to come. The illustration often offered is a favourite of the early Church fathers: Christ's human nature is like iron heated in a fire, so that the iron glows red hot. His distinct humanity remains human (iron). But His human nature is deified - glows with divinity - because of the 'fiery' energies of His distinct divine nature. In the same way, the human Church is deified by union with this deified human Christ. In short, as Athanasius put it: 'God became human, so that humanity might become God.'
The way the Church shares in Christ's deified humanity is by the Holy Spirit's activity in the Church (Chapter 8). The Spirit fills/baptises each believer with Deity, deifying our humanity on the basis of Christ's Incarnation. Because Jesus became what we are, we can - by the Father's grace - become what He is.
In this way, the essence/nature (Greek: ousia) of the Church is divinised human nature, common to all believers, because this is Christ's human nature. Yet every believer, individually, is actually the very fullness of that deified humanity by the Spirit's gift, so that we are real persons (Greek: hypostases). Our union with the Church and Her Lord, therefore, most certainly does not destroy our individuality, our personhood. The Church thus has two very key aspects (Chapter 9). Like the Trinity, she is essence (ousia) and persons (hypostases). I disagree with Lossky that it is the sacraments – the Eucharist and Baptism – which are the unique way through which we enter into the Church, and into Christ. Scripture, as I understand it, emphasises faith alone as the only means for getting into Christ, though obedience to the sacraments do follow true, living faith.
Chapter 10 homes in on the Eastern view of prayer, with some excellent remarks on Hesychasm, which I always find rather appealing. Again, I contend with Lossky on the Eastern emphasis of free-will. Lossky and the East uphold a very synergistic salvation. Full co-operation between both God and a person is absolutely essential, they say. In one sense, the Reformed would not disagree with this. Of course a person has to be fully responsive to God and we certainly are not just passive – 'Let go, and just let God.' We really do believe, and we really do love God, freely, from the heart, as a matter of purity of choice. But the question is: why do some fallen sinners make good use of their sinful free-wills, whereas others do not? I believe Augustine and the Reformers (like Martin Luther) nailed it when they said that special grace is gifted to some of us, and not gifted to others. In short, some are simply granted by God to make proper use of their sinful free-will, and there's plenty in the Scriptures to back this up (John 6:65, Philippians 1:29, 2:12-13, 1 Corinthians 15:10, Hebrews 13:20-21). On the contrary, the East deny this entirely; any wise use of one's free-will, they say, is explicitly not a gift of God's grace. This is a major difference between the Orthodox and Reformed Churches. Reformed Christians often find this aspect of Orthodoxy the biggest hurdle of all to embracing Eastern Christianity. One might even argue that the East, always claiming their allegiance to the councils of the past, have perhaps failed to fully uphold some of the ancient councils against Pelagianism. In any case, the latter half of Lossky's chapter was, notwithstanding, very useful.
The last but one chapter (11) adds little to what has been said before, other than that it homes in once again on where the book began: that theology should lead us to transformation into God's glory.
The Conclusion (Chapter 12) is an excellent summary of the entire book, and worth reading if you have neither the time, nor the patience, to decipher the very heavy content of the preceding chapters.
All in all, this is a work of considerable brilliance from a 'once-in-a-generation' theologian. It is flooded with quotes from figures like Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus and Gregory Nazianzen. You're hardly likely to find a better place to study Eastern theology in all its glorious splendour than right here. As has been seen, much of Lossky's work is taken up with the theme of theosis/deification, and the method of theosis is explicitly trinitarian. Much attention is given to the Incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit. Theosis (or Glorification, as the Reformed call it) is a lot more at the heart of Eastern (and early Church) theology than it is with Reformed and Protestant theologians. The Reformed and Protestant world can learn much from the Eastern way in these respects, amongst others.
One last negative. It's not a big book, but it's a very difficult book to read. Do not underestimate that. It's not accessible, and for anyone to benefit profoundly from it, I would suggest they already need some theological qualifications. Lossky also uses a number of Greek words, which he does not always define. For these reasons, I cannot give it 10/10, though it is most certainly 5 stars. This does not mean you shouldn't buy this book. By all means purchase it. But perhaps you may only get round to actually reading Chapter 12 (Conclusion) and possibly Chapter 3 (the Trinity). If you only read Chapter 12, it will have been worth buying, I recommend.
I don't think I'll ever become Orthodox, but boy do I like so much of what they teach. I will probably rave about this book until my dying day.