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on 21 May 2015
Having read Markides’ beautiful ‘The mountain of silence’, and then Louth’s ‘Theology of the Orthodox church’ which is as easily accessible as the former, I then found myself moving on to Lossky, who Louth, along with other commentators reiterated the sense not only Lossky’s mastery of his subject, but also his love for it born from experience. Lossky is not something to read from beginning to end. I could not put down Markides’s ‘Mountain’, but Lossky is quite different. It demands reflection, especially from those with a Catholic perspective. It has changed my whole view of Christianity, imbibed in my neo-Catholic upbringing. It challenged so many misinformed ideas, and put them in a context much simpler than Catholic dogma, and put my somewhat idealistic or romantic idea of monasticism in a totally different light. Henry VIII had no idea of the spiritual deprivation which followed as a consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries. The recent situation of a refugee camp outside of Rome, where people have worked, and was blessed by the Pope in 2012, but has now been demolished by the local authorities because of the problem of car parking for a forthcoming celebration. Communication does not seem to have been a problem with the Eastern Church in its very long history from the early Greek Fathers.

There is no Pope in the Eastern Church, but there has been enquiry, and despite the apparent multiplicity of the Eastern Churches, there is unanimity of purpose and theology, and it has been consistent, free from any apparent schisms. This is a far remove from Aquinas’s ‘Summa’ which was supposed to answer all questions, in the same way that the almost contemporary Al Ghazali’s equivalent, was to lay the foundation stones for the teaching for the Islamic world. Lossky does not hide the differences with Rome, which is why there is, as it were, two Christian churches – apart from the others which are sectional in outlook. The difference is fundamental: be good and go to heaven, or be good and become united with God (Theosis). Why have I never become a catholic, is because I cannot accept the notion of the infallibility of the Pope, for we have had many Pope’s who in retrospect have been very infallible; the Eastern Church’ s structure – if it could be called that, has no space for a Pope. Lossky outlines key viewpoints, I would not say doctrines, but they are viewpoints which have been shared, and developed, enriching them. I could never really understand Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, but now I am a lot clearer as to what he might have intended, and certainly a lot clearer about the concept in terms of appreciating its manifestation, than I ever was. This is not for the faint hearted: Orthodox readers will be as enlightened as Catholic readers, the general reader, perhaps with a sense that they will look at Christianity, as really embodying a mystery that calls for enquiry into basic spiritual questions about who we are and what we should be doing; the kind of questions we ask once, and invariably move on from. And we will have to ask them again.
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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.

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on 19 April 2016
Densely written but well worth the effort of following through. The author was a leading 20th century Eastern Orthodox theologian. He demonstrates convincingly how the EO approach to Christian Theology diverges from the Western (Catholic). He shows how doctrine can never be separated from experience and vice versa. It will appeal to all who are open to the insights of the eastern tradition.
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on 30 April 2017
Good. Helpful overview,
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on 7 January 2013
Vladimir Lossky was the son of Russian philosopher N.O. Lossky. Both father and son were extradited from the Soviet Union in 1922, together with Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergius Bulgakov and other non-Communist intellectuals. During World War II, Lossky joined the French Gaullist resistance. Despite his status as an expellee, Lossky had contacts with the Soviet-approved patriarch of Moscow, and was allowed to visit the USSR in 1956.

Otherwise, Lossky junior is most known as an Orthodox theologian. He studied the writings of Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas and Etienne Gilson, and is said to have influenced quite a few people within the Church of England. His work "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church", however, shows no Thomist or Eckhartian influences whatsoever.

"The Mystical Theology" is an extremely difficult work, as several other reviewers have already pointed out. It's not an introductory text, but rather a very advanced theological treatise. Lossky attempts to unite two strands of thought many would consider to be irreconcilable: apophatic mysticism and traditional Christian dogma. Indeed, his dependence on the latter might be one of the reasons why the work is so complex. You need a proper grounding in theology to appreciate Lossky's book, especially when it tackles issues outsiders would consider hopelessly abstruse, such as the filioque.

In the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius and other apophatic mystics, Lossky considers God to be fundamentally incomprehensible. In a certain sense, we can't really say anything about God at all. Indeed, Lossky believes that the Christian god is unfathomable in a more radical sense than The One of Neo-Platonist mysticism. To Lossky, the idea that the divine is "One" rather than "Many" can at least be conceptualized by our rational thinking, whereas the God of Christianity cannot. He is wholly other. (I recently discussed this issue with a non-Christian explorer of mysticism. He disagreed with Lossky - how can you *really* conceptualize the movement from One to Many, and back?)

Further, Vladimir Lossky regards the central doctrines of Christianity as unfathomable, standing above and beyond our rational categories. The Incarnation, the Atonement, the Trinity, the relation between nature and grace...none of these ideas can really be understood, and are therefore examples of apophaticism. Of course, there is something paradoxical about rejecting all positive descriptions of God, while insisting that the Incarnation or the Trinity are true. That's clearly a statement *of* something, and this becomes even clearer when we have in mind all the theological conflicts between different Christian groups. If the Divine is a dazzling darkness beyond both knowing and unknowing, how did the Church Fathers knew that Gnosticism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism and Monotheletism were heretical?

Lossky's response seems to be that although God is in one sense utterly mysterious, in another sense he is very near. The goal of all creation is "theosis" or deification, whereby we get to partake of the Uncreated Light of the Godhead. Theosis is described as a very concrete process, whereby the individual believer (usually a saintly mystic) becomes bodily transformed to an exalted state of being through the divine light. This temporary transformation is a foreshadowing of the new heavens and new earth said to be established by Christ at his second coming. I don't think Lossky suggests that all mystical raptures are of this sort, but this dramatic scenario seems to be the highest version of such ecstasy.

To Lossky, the reality of theosis is captured by the orthodox Christian creeds. It is denied or rendered ineffectual by the ideas of the heretics. Thus, the Gnostics denied theosis altogether, regarding the material world as irredeemably evil. Contrary to the Arians, the Church regarded the Father and the Son to be of the same substance - if the Son wouldn't have the same nature as the Father, he wouldn't be able to divinize man. The Church condemned Nestorianism for similar reasons, since the Nestorians claimed that there was a chasm between the divine and the human in the person of Jesus himself. Contrary to the Monophysites, the Church believed that the Son had taken upon him human nature in its fullness, thereby making it possible for all of our earthly nature to be united with God. And so on! Lossky also mentions the iconoclast controversy, arguing that the issue was whether or not matter can symbolize spiritual, salvific realities. Naturally, the author responds in the affirmative.

It should be said in this context that Lossky doesn't view the Christian dogmas as strictly "empirical". They weren't discovered by clever mystics who then went on to formulate a creed based on them. Rather, the creeds are the result of divine revelation through the medium of the Holy Spirit, working in the Church, which is the mystical body of Christ. Not even a mystic can discover these truths all by himself. They have become known only because God has chosen to reveal them. Nobody knew the full truth before the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the subsequent sending of the Holy Ghost. However, I suppose the Orthodox doctrines can nevertheless be "tested" in the sense that a faithful believer will be properly transformed if he follows the orthodox mystical path. This would be a kind of "evidence" for those who crave such. In that sense, they are "empirical" or experientially based. Of course, the idea of bodily transformation exists in other religious traditions, as well. Their representatives would presumably take issue with the statement that theosis is only possible within the strict confines of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

These, then, were some of my reflections when reading Vladimir Lossky's "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church". I'm not sure how to rate this difficult work, but eventually I decided on four stars.
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on 6 December 2010
One of my all time favorite books. Bought my first copy at a flea market for a dollar. Have purchased more since and sent to friends and family.

He tells how true Christianity is always mystical, always experiential...and at the same time cannot be without roots in theology. Gotta have both. You can't just have what your head believes...anymore than you can have just what your heart holds true.

A dear friend who was raised in the Anglican Church read this book and because of it converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and later became a monk and founded a wonderful monastery near Redding, CA in Manton with some 20 monks. He now heads the Orthodox Church in America as Metropolitan. Be careful. This book may change your life!

This author basically lived a powerful life as a lay leader in the Orthodox church, wrote this book, died way too young. I don't know that we have any other major work by Lossky. I think sometimes you produce a classic or do something incredible and wonderful and God says, "...hey, Good job! Can't top that. Come on home." This book is that good.
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A rational crtic of mystic qualties in orthdox christianity that covers old and new aspects of the subject dealt with in a gentle way
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