The Faith: Understanding Orthodox Christianity

Clark Carlton's well known book The Faith (Regina Orthodox Press, 1997) usually tops the list of recommended reading for an inquirer or catechumen. After reading through the book twice, I can say that, in my opinion, such a place is well deserved.

When I ordered the book, I was expecting something along the lines of Stanley Harakas' Orthodox Christian Beliefs, that is to say, a systematic, point-by-point explanation of Orthodox doctrine on various points. In other words, I was expecting a Papist or Protestant theology book. Thankfully, however, Orthodoxy is nothing like either of those religions.

Instead, Carlton ties every point of teaching, every detail of the Church and every minute of spiritual life back to the nature of the Trinity. As he says: "The present catechism presupposes that the way the teachings of the Church are explained is important. Orthodox theology is an organic whole. Every aspect of the life of the Church is an expression to man through the Incarnation of the Son of God."

That said, the Church does have numerous very clear doctrines which must be conveyed, which the author does an excellent job of doing. Dividing the work into two parts, he spends the first nine chapters discussing "The Doctrines of Christ", id est, the nature of God, the Trinity and the Incarnation, while touching, via the "special study" section at the end of each chapter, on such more physical things as the Sign of the Cross, Icons and the intercession of the saints. He also devotes a chapter in this section to a discussion of the role of the Theotokos in the Church, which, quite honestly, is the best defence of that doctrine to Protestants I have yet found.

Part two, "The Life in Christ" focuses on the physical, present form, function and duty of the Church. Packed with quotations from the first, second and third century Fathers, Carlton aptly demonstrates the ancient nature of the Church's structure, while briefly discussing Rome's pretensions, defends baptism and the Eucharist and provides a basic introduction to the liturgical cycles of prayer and fasting. He finishes the section with chapters on prayer and monasticism and, lastly, with a brief discussion of the Lord's return.

Quite possibly my favourite part of the book was its conclusion "Living an Orthodox Life in a Secular World": here, the author was not afraid to call out the American founders as Deists and Masons, denounce the Enlightenment and its ideological consequences as incompatible with the Faith and stand up against the rapid moral degeneracy of the post-Western world, as well as providing real advice to families and individuals trying to do just that.

Orthodox apologists have said over and over again that there is an essential difference between Orthodoxy and Western "Christianity", whether Papist or Protestant, that difference being that the West view Christianity as being primarily an ideology derived from a text, whereas we old it to be a relationship with God and the community of the Saints. Unfortunately for us, it is often hard for Orthodox in the West to not think in a Western manner, and it is especially hard for converts to not bring some of the basic presuppositions into the Church with them. As a result, our insistence on being different is often belied by our own attitude towards what it means to be a Christian.

To sum up, I would highly recommend this work to just about anyone. Catechumens will find it a wonderful glimpse into a Kingdom truly not of this world, converts will find many of their presuppositions challenged and exposed as heretical and long-time believers will find it of much help when trying to explain to outsiders that, "No, we're not just Papism without the Pope".

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