Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Review: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology

Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Third edition, second printing), Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009. 426 pages. (First edition in English 1983).

Since everyone but me seemed to have read this book, I decided to finally purchase it some days ago, and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. Although I had known about the book for several years, I had hitherto avoided it because it came out of the so-called Jordanville school which, like much of modern Russian theology, was heavily influenced by Western scholasticism, often adopting Roman Catholic teaching wholesale (minus the obvious doctrines of Papal supremacy/infallibility, the Immaculate Conception and the Filioque). While this work certainly is not void of scholastic influence, as the editors acknowledge in the preface, this relates essentially only to the mode of presentation and does not affect the actual substance of the content, which is thoroughly Orthodox. Fr. Michael clearly explains the differences between the Orthodox and Latin views on issues such as original sin, the satisfaction theory of atonement, and so on. In many ways, the book is much like the icon on the front cover: Orthodox in content but 'Western' in style.

Fr. Michael Pomazansky
What probably accounts for this 'Western' style is also what I liked most about this book: its clarity and pithiness. Despite the rather forbidding title (if you want to put someone off a book, use the word 'dogmatic' in the title!), the book itself is neither convoluted nor opaque. Fr. Michael presents the core teachings of the Christian faith in a way that is concise and clear, but also very comprehensive. The subjects covered are laid out in a way that is easy to follow, and which corresponds to the history of salvation as it is presented to us in Scripture, beginning with an explanation of who God is - the doctrine of the Trinity - followed by the creation of the world, the fall of man, and the Lord's incarnation and work of salvation - in this context he gives an exposition of Orthodox Christology, as well as a brief summary of the various heresies and controversies which challenged this doctrine. Explaining these doctrines, not abstractly, but in the context of the Biblical narrative does not only make them easier to understand but shows us why they matter. Every chapter is replete with relevant biblical quotations and he also makes extensive use of the Fathers (particularly St. Cyril of Jerusalem, much to my delight), giving the reader a firm grounding in both. Here follows chapters on the Church, the Mysteries (Sacraments), Prayer, and Christian Eschatology. To speak of Seven Sacraments is certainly a borrowing from Latin theology, and one many Orthodox would consider inadequate if not wrong, but it is one found in nearly all Orthodox books dealing with the subject, and so one cannot fault Fr. Michael for this. Likewise, many consider the number of Ecumenical Councils to be nine (including the 4th and 5th Councils of Constantinople), not the seven listed by Fr. Michael, but again this is more or less standard. What could be considered somewhat questionable is Fr. Michael's mention of the toll-houses in the chapter on Eschatology, particularly his passing mention of the life of St. Basil the New in this context. However, he stresses the symbolic and spiritual nature of this idea and does not go into any detail as to their nature, staying well within the boundries of the Scriptural, liturgical, and patristic texts that clearly speak of the soul's encounter with demons at the moment of death (unlike the book's translator, Fr. Seraphim Rose, whose own work The Soul After Death, which is unfortunately recommended by the editors in the footnotes, is highly speculative, overly literal, and cannot be said to be grounded in the Tradition of the Church). The only thing I found lacking was Fr. Michael's treatment of theosis, but this is made up for by the editors' rather extensive footnotes, which on the whole are quite helpful and provide supplimentary patristic quotations and add some nuance where Fr. Michael's own mode of expression was less than clear, or where he did not make use of common Orthodox theological parlance.

Read in conjunction with a general work on the history and faith of the Orthodox Church (Ware's, The Orthodox Church, for example), Fr. Michael's book serves as a perfect introduction to Orthodox theology and would be of great benefit to catechumens or those instructing them. While the scholastic style should be borne in mind, it is only prolematic if the reader absolutises the language and expressions used and forgets that these are simple expositions of vast and complex subjects which are naturally significantly deeper and more subtle than what such an introductory work can offer.

On the whole, this is a wonderful addition to any Orthodox library and one I wish I had read a decade ago.


  1. Nice review. Now I guess I am the only person who hasn't read it. But I'm so bored of introductions to Orthodoxy, I don't know if I can be bothered to read another one, even one as old and renowned as this. The Western presentation would probably annoy me too, though given when the book was written, it is to be expected. Will we Orthodox ever get past introducing Orthodoxy to Westerners?

  2. Apparently the original Russian version was written for seminarians studying at Jordanville, so it's the style that is Western not its target audience...perhaps that's why I liked it - it focuses on core Christianity, not on 'exotic differences' like icons and incense.

  3. This is one of my favorite books, but it is not without faults. I am assuming the translator, Father Seraphim Rose, was using the King James Version of the Bible when he translated Scriptural passages, because of certain Elizabethan words. But most people probably never bother to check and see if the passages are translated correctly. This book misquotes from the Bible on numerous occasions. I was keeping track of this, but decided to stop because there are so many examples. I think some examples are significant enough to even alter the meaning of the passage. Here are two such examples.

    On page 199, the book quotes from Eph. 2:8 as saying, "Ye are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God,"

    That is not the way the passage reads. It actually says:

    "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:"

    We are saved by GRACE through faith, but the book omitted the word "grace."

    In another passage, the word "heaven" is left out completely. On page 123, Matthew 18:10 is incorrectly quoted as follows:

    "...for I say unto you, that their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven. (Matt.18:10)." The word "heaven" was left out completely.

    The KJV actually reads, "...for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven..."

    On page 98, the book quotes from Acts 20:28, and uses the word "bishops' instead of the KJV "overseers."

    On page 64 he mistranslates from 2Cor. 3:17, as the following:

    "The Lord is a Spirit."

    The KJV actually says, "The Lord is that Spirit."...

    These are just a few examples. In other places he frequently uses the word "who," instead of the KJV, "which," If one is going to quote from a Bible translation, be attentive and at least get it right. We are talking about the Holy Scriptures. If he's not quoting from the KJV, than he shouldn't have used Elizabethan words, since this can (and has) lead to confusion.

    Other than several misquotations from the Bible, the book is excellent, and accurately explains Orthodox Christian belief.

  4. Thank you for such detailed and helpful comments. Translations are always tricky and so it's worth keeping things like this in mind.