An icon of Christ from the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, Trieste, Italy

A. Dagli Orti/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

An icon of Christ from the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon, Trieste, Italy, nineteenth century

If you are a stranger to Orthodox Christianity, I recommend reading the final chapter of John McGuckin’s The Eastern Orthodox Church first. That’s the quickest way to enter a devotional and theological world frequently misunderstood, as much by those who know only Western Christianity’s many varieties as by those unfamiliar with Christian beliefs more generally. In the closing section of this worthwhile book, McGuckin courteously guides the present-day Sunday visitor through the crowded portals of a representative Orthodox parish church. In former times, that would have meant going to Eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, or Russia, but nowadays it could be anywhere in the world: there are plenty of Orthodox worshipers in Chicago, Melbourne, or Toronto. There is a narthex, or entrance hall, brightly lit and full of movement in and out. Long, thin tapers are prominently on offer, and having listened to McGuckin’s explanation for them—they will bear up prayers for your family, living and departed—you may choose to pick up and pay for a couple before you proceed further.

The church door proper now beckons, and through it is a greater dimness, marked by pools of lively light as similar tapers burn in front of images that are richly painted on flat surfaces of wall or board with a distinctive artistic style: once seen, it is easily recognized again. McGuckin tells you that these images are called “icons” (simply the Greek word for images, but nothing is simple in Orthodoxy). Around you are crowds of worshipers, not sitting passively in pews like a Catholic or Protestant congregation but standing or walking around with a purpose. Your tapers are part of the purpose: one of them ends up in front of a prominent icon of Christ, the other before an icon of his mother, Mary. (A Westerner may ask, Where are the crucifixes? And why are there no statues?) The worshipers are doing a great deal on their own initiative; without obvious reference to the liturgy being performed by clergy and choir, they repeatedly bow or prostrate or cross themselves. If you know Western churches, you may be struck by another absence (at least on a normal Sunday): no one is kneeling. McGuckin whispers the reason to you: in 325 CE, a council of the universal Church held at Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) forbade kneeling on Sundays, because kneeling is a gesture of penitence, and Sunday is the time to rejoice in glory.

So begins the unfolding rationale of a long and intimidatingly complex liturgy, the regular diet of worship in an Orthodox parish church. Beyond it lie even more complex liturgies in the monasteries and nunneries that are an essential component of the Orthodox Christian way of life. There could be no better guide to it all than McGuckin. An academic theologian and historian with a distinguished career in British and American universities, he is also an archpriest of the Romanian Orthodox Church, but his vocation came after thorough familiarity with the Western Christian tradition. He knows how to address a non-Orthodox audience, presenting in a relatively short book most of what needs to be known about two millennia of Christian history. Having written my own books about Christian history, I enjoyed seeing much familiar material from an unfamiliar angle—not that I always found the view entirely convincing or complete.

McGuckin operates so professionally within the modern scholarly disciplines of critical history and theology that the result is worth subjecting to robust scrutiny. At the outset he emphasizes how “the Orthodox insist that church history is quintessentially a theological reading of historical events…. ‘God is Lord of world history.’” This “amounts to what can be called a prophetic reading of history.” As he points out, the authors in the library that Christians call the Bible wrote their accounts of world events like this—from the creation of the world in Genesis to a vision of the end of all earthly things in the Book of Revelation—with the belief that a divine pattern lay behind them. If this belief is correct, then there cannot have been any other pattern to events, at least as far as they affected the unfolding shape of the Christian Church. Moreover, there can be only one authentic Christian Church resulting from the pattern. However nice you might be to other ecclesial bodies (or at least some of them), they can’t have gotten things quite as right as the authentic Church.

Another way of expressing the idea of the “authentic Church” would be to define its character as “Orthodoxy”—another Greek word, meaning “right opinion.” Wherever there is this right opinion, there is the Church: anywhere that the right opinion has prevailed. Hence another description of this Church is that it is universal, or, to use another Greek word, “catholic.” McGuckin mischievously points out that the name often applied to one large non-Orthodox Christian body, the Roman Catholic Church, is a contradiction in terms, as “Roman” is a localizing adjective. To be fair, the pope wouldn’t call himself a Roman Catholic, just a Catholic; “Roman” is a label bestowed by outsiders trying to cut the Church of Rome down to size, largely beginning in Western Christianity’s sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. But the logical point about the phrase “Roman Catholicism” stands. In contrast, that logic doesn’t apply to the many localizing adjectives of the word “Orthodox” that exist throughout the world: Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and so on. They are all facets of the same “right opinion,” in their own eyes at least; they can all lay proud claim to the inheritance of Orthodoxy. They will be aware that their heritage involves a millennium-old rupture with that body of Christians based in Western Europe and led in the Middle Ages by the pope, who made his own claims to supremacy in Christendom. Attempts at reuniting the two traditions have never succeeded, and however much goodwill Christian leaders may show nowadays, there is no sign of any such reunion any time soon.


Orthodoxy’s liturgy, art, and Church organization have an instantly recognizable character, and a general air of always having been like that. Let’s chip away, however, at one of those assumptions in the prophetic construction of Orthodox history: that having been shaped by the Lord God, Church history cannot have had any other outcome than the truth of Orthodoxy. Here is where a professional historian’s perspectives might subvert or complicate Orthodox claims. McGuckin’s first chapter is a nuanced and informed account of what we know of Jesus’s life and its aftermath, up to the end of the first century CE. It takes full measure of the first great cultural transformation in Christian history: from Judaism to Hellenism, the diffused Greek culture of the eastern Mediterranean that surrounded and embraced the enclave that Christians call the Holy Land.

Jesus was a Jew of his time—he is named after the ancient Jewish hero and military leader Joshua. In everyday life, Jesus is likely to have spoken Aramaic, a Semitic language related to the ancestral Hebrew of the Jewish people, and he is portrayed in the Gospels as expounding the Hebrew scripture in synagogues, so maybe he could speak or read some biblical Hebrew too. He probably also spoke some colloquial Greek, enough to do business in the marketplace, particularly since four miles from his Galilean home in Nazareth was a Greek-style town called Sepphoris, capital city of the younger of two wicked King Herods. Both Herods figure in the Gospels, but, interestingly, none of the Gospels says a word about Sepphoris, reflecting the fact that Jesus’s life was lived in an overwhelmingly non-Greek culture. Yet even the earliest surviving remnants of Christian literature are written not in Aramaic but in Greek, attesting to a radical shift in the cult that grew around Jesus. These fragments are letters written by a Jew from the Anatolian city of Tarsus called Saul or Paul, in that same colloquial Greek that echoed in the marketplace of Sepphoris. Paul was writing a decade or two after the crucifixion of the founder-prophet; the two men never met during Jesus’s earthly life. McGuckin generously acknowledges this cultural hiatus but does not pursue it as a problem or indeed as an opportunity to envisage alternative futures.

Jewish or Aramaic Christianity did survive in an increasingly attenuated form for another four centuries or so, but its followers’ self-deprecating description as the Ebionites, or “the Poor,” probably indicated its sense of having been marginalized, and now it has no direct descendants. Even the very significant parts of early Christianity that did persist in using a Semitic language, the Syriac Churches, appear to have translated their scriptural texts from Greek originals. Greeks have never needed to translate Christianity’s foundational documents. Hence Greek-speaking Orthodox Christianity has a claim to being the most authentic surviving heir of the first Christians—certainly more authentic than the Latin-speaking Westerners who eventually coalesced under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome.

Latin-speaking Christianity was once provincial, marginal in comparison with the Greeks, but it has managed to hide that character by tracing a succession of bishops in Rome back to one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, the Apostle Peter, who was probably but not certainly executed in the city. Curiously, the Church of Rome did not attribute episcopal status to the apostolic figure who definitely ended up in Rome, Paul of Tarsus. McGuckin points out that the universal institution of one bishop overseeing all the Christians of a single locality is a second-century development; he could have pushed that observation to emphasize that this occurred long after the deaths of Peter and Paul, and that the early succession of Roman bishops is actually historical fiction.


Yet that is not the same as asserting the inevitability of Orthodoxy at the center of Christian development. There were other possible futures, some of which had a real future. Not all: not the “gnostic” forms of Greek Christianity that deliberately traveled quite far from Christianity’s Jewish roots. Some gnostics, for instance, sneered at the use that other Christians made of Jewish scripture (which early followers of Jesus had rebranded as their “Old Testament”); many gnostics said that the Jewish creator God of the Old Testament, whom Christians now identify with God the Father, was delusional and not to be identified with ultimate divinity. McGuckin shows sensible skepticism about recent scholarly attempts to portray gnostics as oppressed victims of what is now the Christian mainstream; he suggests that their often bewildering writings were “not so much proscribed out of existence as not wanted.”

He is much more ambivalent about the first great Christian intellectual after the apostolic age, Origen of Alexandria, whom he praises as “the greatest theologian in the early church after Saint John the Evangelist,” only to go on to a severe caveat about the problems that his “great fertility of thought” created. McGuckin is merely reflecting the difficulty that Orthodoxy has always felt about this wayward genius. Origen never made it to sainthood (which means that we don’t find him among the icons with their attendant tapers). Indeed, he was posthumously reprimanded in successive Councils of the Church, and “Origenism” condemned.

Why? One big problem was Origen’s account of the relationship of God the Father and God the Son (who could be identified with the first-century Jew Jesus). Origen followed the logic of two words that had strong connotations in ancient society: a son ought to show proper deference to his father. The consequence of such a theology was that the Divine Son was “subordinate” to the Divine Father in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the classic Christian formula for describing God. During the fourth century, the entire Mediterranean Church was convulsed with arguments over this conclusion; the eventual losers were classed as heretics and contemptuously referred to by the name of an Origenist priest from Alexandria named Arius. Arians were kicked out of the mainstream Church, after coming close to taking it over, but they had considerable success in subsequent centuries, and their propositions about the subordinate Christ have never quite gone away. In fact, in their Origenism, they had a reasonable claim to represent a more authentic early Christianity than the ultimate winners of the Arian controversy, whose heirs are the Orthodox, Catholics, and most Protestants.

A further untidiness in the Orthodox account of history comes from the present-day existence of Eastern Churches with an equal claim to antiquity. These are nevertheless regarded by the Orthodox as “unorthodox” on grounds that may sound technical now but have sustained fifteen centuries of bitterness. At a Council of the Church at Chalcedon in 451, many rebellious and strong-minded Christians refused to agree to a deal brokered by the Eastern Roman emperor Marcian and his formidable wife, Pulcheria, which specified the language to be used henceforth in solving a further vexing problem about Jesus Christ: Even if the Arian view of the Son’s relationship to the Father had been declared heretical, and the Son’s full Divinity and full Humanity affirmed, how did these aspects, or “natures,” of Jesus Christ relate to each other? Did the Divinity cry out in agony on the Cross? The emperor, desperate not to fracture his empire, enforced a compromise in these conflicts, ruling that Christ was equally “perfect both in deity and in humanness,” and that his Human and Divine natures existed simultaneously.

The extremes at either polarity loathed the imperial compromise as well as each other, and thereafter did not trust emperors to referee theology. “Non-Chalcedonian” Churches still exist, though now often far from their original eastern Mediterranean homelands. Many of their adherents after the Council of Chalcedon were non–Greek speakers (that was another factor in their distrust of a Greek-speaking imperial Church), but two further intimidatingly technical Greek labels try to pin down their deeply felt yet irreconcilable loves for the crucified and risen Savior: Miaphysites contend that, contrary to the Chalcedonian agreement, Christ has not two natures, divine and human, but only one, which contains both his divinity and humanness; Dyophysites argue, with the Chalcedonians, that Christ has two natures, albeit joined in a perfect union. McGuckin provides excellent and fair-minded descriptions of the respective leading theologians of these Churches, Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, but he does not quite resolve why either opposing Christological position cannot claim to represent Orthodoxy.

Is this outcome of past battles just a matter of numbers and worldly success? The non-Chalcedonian Churches of Asia and Africa have indeed been sorely battered by historical forces, from the ascendancy of Islamic powers to Western Christian encroachments to the contemporary barbarity of ISIS, but that is hardly a measure of whether they were right or not. If it were, then the catastrophes that have afflicted Orthodox Churches might equally well tell against “Orthodoxy.” The Greeks found themselves harried and eventually subjected by Ottoman Turks; the Russian Orthodox Church was bureaucratized by the tsars and then appallingly persecuted by the Soviets. Their stories of oppression and frequent heroism form a major part of McGuckin’s book, and yet, strikingly, those memories have never entirely altered the respectful attitude of Orthodoxy toward authority. That forms one of the more problematic aspects of Orthodox history.

The Orthodox have never forgotten that they treated first Byzantine emperors and then self-proclaimed Russian emperors as sacral figures working on behalf of God’s purposes, as though they were King David in ancient Israel. The Ottoman and Soviet periods did not expunge so deep-rooted an assumption, however much they tested it. McGuckin interestingly encourages Westerners to try to understand such an attitude, even when applied to manifestly repellent leaders like the late and unlamented Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania or Vladimir Putin, but readers may still struggle to accept it. Ceaușescu’s overthrow in 1989 was set in motion by the defiance of Western Christians, Reformed Protestants of the city of Timișoara, who were inspired by their pastor to resist tyranny. The Reformed Protestant tradition, unlike Orthodoxy, had the theological resources not only to recognize evil in worldly powers but to do something about it. To cite another recent political catastrophe, we don’t get much sense from McGuckin that the Serbian Orthodox Church has seriously reflected on its involvement in the genocidal conflicts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Every author has to make choices in summary histories: often the selection is a matter of light and shade. McGuckin gives you most of the information needed to see through the common claim that Orthodox history represents a timeless, unchanging faith and practice. Actually, Orthodoxy has been remarkably good at innovation. In the eighth and ninth centuries it fought bitter conflicts over the place of visual images of divinity in Christian belief, and when the fights were finished and images affirmed, the Orthodox drew fruitful new conclusions about the use of icons (more of that anon). From the ninth century, Orthodoxy created liturgies and scriptural texts in languages other than Greek, building up new cultural identities from the Balkans to the Russian steppes. In the medieval period it invented a crucial piece of liturgical furniture, the iconostasis, in which icons stand in well-established order in front of the altar. In the fourteenth century it also experienced a style of mystical and quietist spirituality known as hesychasm, which after a good deal of opposition achieved a controversial ascendancy, probably because its emphasis on stillness and devotional repetition was helpful at a time when political power was ebbing away from Greek Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy, then, has been a religion of change and fresh thinking; it’s just that from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 onward, long battles for self-preservation under Ottoman Muslim rule replaced the opportunity or the will to go on being innovative. I do not think that McGuckin would disagree, since his penultimate chapter gives his choice of “recent outstanding Orthodox figures” of the last hundred years. Their admirable and often heroic lives are linked by their passionate concern to use past insights in adopting Orthodox traditionalism to entirely new situations in the modern world.

One final matter I would have liked to see McGuckin address is why Orthodox churches exhibit no statues or carved crucifixes, only icons painted on walls or on wood. The answer goes to the heart of Orthodox attitudes toward scripture and tradition, because it is dependent on the Ten Commandments, which are embedded in the Hebrew Scripture and fundamental for Jews and Christians alike. Although the Ten Commandments are naturally always ten in number, there is no consensus on how one forms the ten from the clump of text they are taken from. Not all Christians are aware that there are two different Christian solutions, depending on how you look at the opening material.

In one system, the First Commandment is a snappy order to “have no other Gods but me.” This version then makes a Second Commandment out of a much more rambling prohibition on “graven images,” which enlarges on this ban at a length not matched in any other commandment. That is how Jews begin their numbering of the Ten Commandments; following the opinion of Origen, so do the Orthodox Churches, rather startlingly in common with Reformed Protestants. Roman Catholics and Lutheran Protestants disagree: the graven-image commandment is just too unlike the others, so they simply regard it as a long footnote to the First Commandment (at best, Commandment 1B). On this system, you might not even recite the ban on graven images in your enumeration of the Commandments, and instead make up the number by splitting up some unfriendly remarks on covetousness at the end of the text. If you do this, you are unlikely to worry too much about graven images. Such is the case with Roman Catholicism and classical Lutheranism, which are both rather fond of graven images.

Where does that leave the Orthodox? You’d expect them to agree with the pope and Luther about the Ten Commandments, given all the pictures that festoon their churches nowadays. But they don’t; like the Jews they include the ban on graven images, and they can’t ignore an entire commandment. What about their icons, then? Now there’s the clever bit. The Second Commandment refers to statues and other works carved (“graven”) in wood or stone. No icons are graven; they are painted on flat surfaces. Hence they are absolutely fine—“Orthodox”—and can be treated with as much reverence as was once paid to the Byzantine emperor in his palace in Constantinople. That reverence is a different devotional quality from the worship given directly to God (which has a different Greek word to describe it). As a result, icons have become vital points of entrance from the grubby particularities of this mortal world to the eternal splendors of the next. What pragmatism of thought; what creativity around a potentially difficult circumstance! That is Orthodoxy, in all its rich complexity and unfinished conversation with its past.