In this book John Burgess of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary writes an account of his encounter with the Orthodox Church in Russia. He relates the way that through his experience he began to rethink Protestant understandings of the Orthodox Church and how he subsequently wishes to introduce concepts that will recapture the Protestant mind.
In the introduction Burgess asserts, “the Orthodox tradition has spiritual riches that Protestants desperately need if we are to find our way into the future” (p. xiv). Burgess introduces how Protestants can learn from the Orthodox Church practice, though his goal is not to give the reader an explanation of Orthodox doctrine. He divides his work into eight chapters that outline Orthodoxy as he sees it.
Chapter 1 relates Burgess’s initial experience in Russia for his sabbatical year. He remarks on living conditions and the experience of parish life. Burgess’s family attended church services and felt both uncomfortable and unfriended at first. He initially provides some contrasts between Orthodoxy and Protestantism that made living in Russia more difficult. Burgess claims that Russia “was not yet set up for Westerners” (p. 9) and still had many difficulties due to the financial collapse in the 1990s. This presented challenges, both in language and in general standard of living. Burgess closes this chapter with a call to be a pilgrim and to appreciate the differences in language and culture, which may cause a different view of one’s own Christian tradition.
Chapters 2 through 4 explore the themes of holiness and ritual in the life of the Orthodox church. Burgess contrasts the formality and ritual of the Orthodox Church in Russia with the informal Protestant churches in America. In the section on “Holy Things” Burgess describes the use of icons and relics to bring healing, change of fortune, or help for those who pray to them. While he seems to be more comfortable with the use of icons by Protestant churches, he also expresses reservations in the use of them. He clarifies that the Orthodox Church “is constantly on guard against idolatry, the ascription of an absolute god-like status to things of the world” (p. 39). Regarding Orthodox liturgy, Burgess contrasts the prescribed worship in Orthodoxy with the varied worship styles and church order used by Protestants, noting that “Protestantism is ritually improvised” (p. 48). He connects this idea to the freedom that Protestant churches have in worship, connecting this to the disunity that he sees in Protestantism. Chapter 4 asserts that beauty, particularly in churches and iconography, is central to Orthodox theology. The paintings of transfigured saints, for example, represent revelation of divine truth. According to Burgess, “icons set forth the same Word of God in visual form that the church sets forth in auditory form when the priest preaches” (p. 75). Stated differently, icons not only reflect the beauty of God, but also remind us that we are living in the company of saints.
Chapters 5 through7 deal with a number of issues concerning more mystical elements in Orthodoxy. Burgess suggests miracles are foreign to minds shaped by Enlightenment ideas. Icons are again put forth as conduits of divine energy and miracles. Burgess’s fondness for icons comes into sharp focus in chapter 5, as he relates the experiences of healing and answered prayers from those who asked the saints for help. Concerning monks in chapter 6, Burgess relates more personal stories of his interactions with monastic life, noting their rituals, prayer life, and discipline. Furthermore, regarding the Eucharist, Burgess asserts that “Protestants in North America are too lackadaisical about Communion” (p. 143). He applauds the seriousness of Orthodox confession, practices, and preparation for communion. Regrettably, he reduces Communion in American churches to “nothing more than a celebration of human community” (p. 143). However, because he did not interact with Orthodox theology, he misses the needed theological explanation and contrast of the two underlying views of Communion in Protestant and Orthodox churches, respectively. One also would like to see a clearer acknowledgement of the diversity of views on Communion within Protestantism.
In the final chapter and conclusion, Burgess again shares more of this experience—how it changed him, and brought his own North American church model into focus. He expresses gratitude for the liberty of conscience enjoyed in American church life, but he notes the problem of American religion becoming capitalistic. He notes the Eucharist was the major area where Protestants and Orthodox do not share fellowship, but connects this more to active life and membership in the Orthodox Church than clearly thought out theological differences. Burgess goes so far as to conclude, “I have come to believe that Orthodoxy does indeed offer a fuller expression of the Christian faith than Protestantism” (p. 181). However, he offers this to his reader without serious critique of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church and does not sufficiently engage theological issues that arise from its approach to theology. The final pages offer a plea for Protestant churches to utilize other Christian traditions as a means of renewal.
This book could be strengthened in some vital areas. Regarding the book’s purpose, there are a few concerns. First, Burgess did not intend to interact with Orthodox theology, but Orthodox practice is informed by its theology. Indeed, the book is filled with references to Orthodox theology. It cannot be escaped. Second, while he said he did not want to interact with Orthodox theology, he advanced ideas concerning the use of icons for Protestants in chapter 8 as well as call for reforms that are based in Orthodox theology. The use of icons, relics and the like are deeply rooted in Orthodox theology, and he had to interact with them in order to write the book. The importation of iconography into Protestant Christianity, without theological backing, may be an over-simplification.
Moreover, Burgess suggests the lack of liturgical success in Reformed churches stems from a divergence from the church’s deep theological heritage. He maintains the unrelenting theological and liturgical framework of Eastern Orthodoxy can help the Western Reformed churches find a deep connection to ancient Christianity. This work is a call for authenticity within Reformed churches, and he believes Orthodoxy can be helpful toward this goal. However, he lacks much needed objective critique of Orthodox practices and theology. That is, he wishes to take on board what is helpful from the Orthodox tradition, yet fails to identify what is unhelpful in this tradition.
While this book is therefore an interesting read as it comes out of the author’s own life experience, it ultimately fails to paint a compelling portrait of a Protestantism informed by Orthodoxy.