by John P. Burgess
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 207 pages.
On sabbatical from Pittsburgh Seminary where he is Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology, John Burgess and his family moved to Russia for a year. They lived in St. Petersburg on the local economy, committing themselves to sharing the life of a Russian Orthodox parish. Burgess’ book is more than an arm’s-length report of Orthodox faith and practice. It is testimony from a profound immersion in a worshiping community known and loved from (nearly) inside. A key to understanding Orthodoxy is the Transfiguration, in which the disciples enjoyed a vision of the majesty of God, pointing them and us “to the transformed reality that lies in and around us all of the time.” “Icons, the Eucharistic elements, and relics … testify to the capacity of all matter to become transparent to God and therefore a means of grace.” The glory of God illuminates the rest of life. Part personal narrative and part theological reflection, Burgess’ testimony explores holiness, ritual, icons, relics, beauty, miracles, monasticism, Eucharist and the church as experienced and celebrated in Orthodoxy. He understands Orthodox spirituality to be oriented primarily to the vertical, while he sees Protestantism to be more oriented to the horizontal.
Each chapter describes Orthodox belief and practice followed by a Protestant critique, and then by a kind of “Yes, but” from the Orthodox perspective. Burgess’ diagnosis of Protestantism is sobering. Protestantism is rooted in a prophetic questioning of received tradition, but the accent on questioning has resulted in Protestantism becoming “hollowed out” from the inside. Protestantism has lost the sense of standing before a holy God. “Authentic veneration and reverence” has been replaced by emotional manipulation. Loyalty to the apostolic faith has been replaced by a focus on marketing religious services. “Too many Protestants think that they cannot practice the faith until they understand it. They cannot pray until they understand what prayer is all about, or they cannot say the creed until they have studied it and determined whether they agree with it.” Since there are many Protestantisms, Burgess’ critique may not be entirely fair, but neither is it far off the mark when it comes to the mid-American generic variety. So, paraphrasing the subtitle, how does Orthodoxy help Protestants reform ourselves again? Burgess writes that “North American Protestantism must learn from Orthodoxy — and perhaps especially Russian Orthodoxy — if it is to find its way into the future.” And yet, he has already warned us that we cannot just borrow this and that from Orthodoxy, since every piece of it is part of an integral whole. Is it all or nothing? The subtitle may promise too much.
Presbyterians need a serious, systematic conversation about how to practice the faith communally. This book could assist such conversation. How has the Reformation served us and the gospel? Are we hanging on too tightly to ideas and practices that have outlived their moment of relevance? Seeing how the Reformation has worked itself out over five centuries, it is time for thoughtful reevaluation.
Ronald P. Byars is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.