By “Orthodoxy” here is meant the Orthodox Church, the world’s second largest Christian community after the Roman Catholic Church, with an estimated 300 million members. Despite its ancient roots and large membership, not too many Christians, especially where the Orthodox Church is still a minority such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, are familiar with its history and organization. But even to those who have heard of Orthodoxy it often only conjures images of bearded clerics in splendid vestments and exotic headgears that are the envy of fashion designers, confusing ethnic multiplicities, unmemorizable long names (e.g., the Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East), onion-domed churches, and of course, icons and incense.
David Bells’ Orthodoxy is the best book I know of that provides a highly readable, at times witty, and unfailingly fair and balanced introduction to the Orthodox Church. It is not, as the author notes, a history of the Orthodox Church, though it does provide plenty of useful historical information. Bell is aware that the use of the singular for Orthodoxy, albeit an accurate description of the unity of its doctrinal Tradition, might convey a misleading perception of the church’s uniformity. On the contrary, Orthodoxy is a collection of churches whose historical dividing line is the Council of Chalcedon. Even though Chalcedon’s christological teaching is now generally accepted by all the Orthodox churches, the division occasioned by the council still remains, so that there are today two main “families” of Orthodox Churches, the Chalcedonian (also known as “Eastern Orthodox” and “Dyophysite”) and Non-Chalcedonian (also known as “Oriental Orthodox,” “Monophysite,” and “Nestorian”). The former includes the Greek, Russian, and Slav Churches, who constitute the majority of Orthodoxy; the latter the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian (also known as Jacobite), Armenian, and Eritrean.
Bell goes on to explain the organization and administration of Orthodoxy, especially its episcopal and collegial structure; its veneration (not worship!) of the icons; its concept of Tradition and traditions; its teaching on grace and deification; its church architecture and worship; its sacramental practices; its teaching on sexuality and marriage; its monastic traditions; its spirituality (especially the Jesus Prayer); and its Eucharistic practice. The last two chapters discuss Orthodoxy in relation with other churches (especially the Lutheran, Anglican, Roman catholic, and Old Catholic) and Orthodoxy in the West (especially the United States and France). The book concludes with reflections on the central features of Orthodoxy and some of its major contemporary problems (e.g., ethnicity, ultra-conservative tendency, and relative absence of focus on mysticism).
Those seeking an accurate and thoughtful guide to the history, teachings, and practices of the Orthodox Church can be assured that Orthodoxy fills the bill magnificently. One other helpful feature of the work is the frequent comparisons it draws between Orthodoxy and other churches, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. In this way readers, especially Roman Catholics, can see not only the similarities but also the differences, some of which fundamental and unnegotiable, between the two largest Christian communions. I most strongly recommend this book for a course on Eastern Christianity.